Being a big fan of liberty, I read Bishop Edward Burns’ “Defending Religious Liberty” (A Bishop’s Perspective, Sunday, Feb. 5) with interest. Not to my surprise, I found that we have vastly different concepts of liberty and that we disagree on the salient facts regarding the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) decision to require access to standard forms of contraception in employer-provided health plans. You wouldn’t know it from Burns’ piece, but the HHS mandate does not require anyone to purchase or use birth control, rather it merely requires that those who want it have access to it. Nor does the mandate apply, as Bishop Burns contends, to all employers. Churches and other institutions that teach religious doctrine are explicitly exempted.
Framing this as a debate about religious liberty neglects the Catholic Church’s inconvenient truth, namely that birth control is wildly popular in the United States; 99 percent of American women and 98 percent of American Catholic women use birth control. Thus portraying the HHS mandate as an “unconscionable” blow to “the religious liberty of all citizens” only highlights the profound disconnect between the conscience of the church and the consciences of women in this country.
This disconnect is equally evident in Burns’ statement that previously he “could not imagine any decent person” wishing the HHS mandate upon religious institutions. Setting aside the issue of whether or not I am a decent person, I can say that I strongly support the HHS mandate simply because I think women deserve equal treatment with men. As well, it wouldn’t have taken a great deal of imagination to see this day coming given the fact that 28 states already require contraceptive coverage in health plans and 8 of those states, like the HHS mandate, allow for only narrow religious exemptions.
In addition, numerous Catholic institutions already offer contraceptive coverage for their female employees and have for years. This includes Catholic universities like Georgetown and Seattle University and health care providers like Catholic Healthcare West, which runs 40 Catholic hospitals in the western US. Where is the outcry against these Catholic institutions that have been willingly “violating their own consciences?” I guess the headline “Georgetown University compelled by federal government to offer employee health benefits it already offers” just isn’t that catchy. The simpler answer is that there are a lot of good reasons for Catholic schools and hospitals to offer contraception as part of their health care packages, such as the fact that many of the people they employ are not Catholic. Even more fundamentally, civil rights law and common sense both tell us that selectively removing preventative care and prescription items that apply only to women from employer health plans is blatantly discriminatory.
Some have predicted that the HHS mandate will rally people to rise up and reclaim their religious liberty. Personally I don’t see it. Where are hoards of women, Catholic and otherwise, demanding that their religious rights be restored by making them pay more out of pocket for their birth control? The only people I really hear complaining about this decision are Catholic bishops. How many of them are women so that the HHS mandate even impacts them in any material way?
I would never advocate for treating people of faith as “second class citizens,” however the Church’s insistence on trying to treat women as second class citizens is both misguided and out of touch. Winning the right for a handful of Catholic schools and hospitals to exclude contraceptives from their female employees’ health insurance coverage will do nothing to change the fact that nearly all women of child bearing age in this country use birth control. The church would be better served to keep itself relevant by not pretending that we live in a time when women can be told they can’t use birth control.
In closing, I took a poll in my household and 1 of 1 women surveyed disagreed with Bishop Burns’ contention that using contraceptives to prevent pregnancy is “as if having a child were a disease.” Rather, the prevailing sentiment was that ensuring fair access to affordable contraception enables people to better chose when they are going to have children, which increases the chances that those children will be born into stable, healthy, and loving environments.
• Hood lives in Juneau with his wife and three daughters.