The XX Factor

Chipping Away at Contraception Coverage

Fight over reproductive rights at Notre Dame.
Pro-life activists Randall Terry and Alan Keyes protest near Notre Dame University on May 17, 2009

Photograph by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Rep. Gwen Moore has a short post up at Huffington Post today demanding that the president not cave in to demands to expand the religious exemption on mandatory coverage of contraception. A quick rundown of the issue: The Affordable Health Care Act requires insurers to cover preventive care at no extra cost to patients, which eliminates co-pays for getting regular check-ups and things like that. The HHS reasonably included contraception in the list of services considered preventive care, which is so obviously common sense it pains me to think of how much effort from administration officials and activists was put towards justifying this decision. Now anti-choice activists, who by and large want to get rid of not only free birth control but health care reform generally, are looking for ways to expand the religious exemption to allow any religiously affiliated employer to deny contraception coverage to female employees. I suspect they have an eye toward the eventual elimination of any form of insurance or government support for contraception, which is why so much effort was put towards defunding Title X family planning funding earlier this year.

This whole issue is surprisingly complicated, especially since the central issue in play is so simple. That central issue, of course, is the Catholic church’s stubborn insistence that using contraception is some kind of unholy Jezebel-like behavior that decent women abhor, when in reality using contraception is something that over 99 percent of sexually active women have done. Perhaps for anti-choice fanatics, the term “sexually active” only conjures up images of nubile co-eds hooking up with different guys every weekend instead of settling down and making more soldiers for the homeland, but seriously, the groups “women who have sex with a man at some point between age 15 and 44” and just plain “women” overlap nearly completely, with a spray of gold star lesbians, maybe a couple of nuns, a handful of asexuals and a scattering of people with serious aversions to sociability holding down a teeny margin of true outliers. All of which is to say that for our purposes, using contraception is as much a part of the female experience as trips down the tampon aisle and being talked down to by men who know less about a subject than you do. This is as true for Catholic women as any other women. The church’s strident attacks on complete insurance coverage of contraception should be considered as strange and hateful as throwing a fit because women prefer to buy tampons and stick-in super-thin pads over diaper-sized pads that you strap on to your waist with a belt.

The situation is complicated because the claim that more employers should be exempted from covering contraception is rooted in “religious freedom.” And honestly, I do think there’s a claim to be made there, but it has to be weighed against the religious freedom of individuals. At the end of the day, the right of the individual to their conscience should trump the right of an institution, especially if the institution is trying to use financial pressure to coerce you into going against your deeply held belief. We, as a country, already accept this argument. We have laws restricting institutions and government from discriminating against individuals for having different religious beliefs and values than the institution. Which is why I find it hard to accept that Catholic institutions should feel free to discriminate against female employees who have different religious beliefs about contraception. A business legally can’t refuse to serve you ice cream because you have different religious beliefs than the owner, so why on earth is it acceptable to allow them to withhold incredibly important health care from women in a straightforward act of religious discrimination? Since female employees pay into the insurance with their money and their labor just as well as male employees, refusing to give that contribution back to them because of religious disagreements is unconscionable. 

Of course, the problem is that there is already a religious exemption in the law, which means the law has already agreed to an extent with the church’s argument that they should be able to take women’s money and then refuse them full service because of a religious disagreement. So this is just a fight over expanding the number of institutions that have a right to discriminate against female employees with different religious views on the subject of preventing pregnancy. Let’s be clear: If anti-choicers win this fight, they aren’t going to go home, satisfied that they’ve merely made contraception access harder for a large percentage of women. Once activists get this, they’ll immediately start looking for ways to expand the exemptions, and I believe their end game is arguing that since some anti-contraception religious fanatic somewhere pays taxes, even allowing Medicaid coverage of contraception should be off-limits. That argument is already in use to justify the Hyde Amendment, after all, so expanding it towards contraception isn’t a logical leap.