WASHINGTON -- As part of their intensely focused effort to repeal the Obama administration's new contraception coverage policy, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a manifesto of sorts on Wednesday, in which they assert that birth control is "ubiquitous and inexpensive."
"We wish to clarify what this debate is -- and is not -- about," the bishops said in the statement. "This is not about access to contraception, which is ubiquitous and inexpensive, even when it is not provided by the Church's hand and with the Church's funds."
What the debate is about, according to the statement, is the "unjust and illegal" mandate that "would force virtually all private health plans nationwide to provide coverage of sterilization and contraception -- including abortifacient drugs."
The bishops' statement is somewhat misleading. The new federal rule does not cover any drug that causes an abortion. It does cover emergency contraception, which prevents pregnancy.
Birth control is also not "ubiquitous and inexpensive" for all women. A 2001 court case against Walmart provides one real-world example of the potential cost burden that millions of women could face if the government allowed employers to pick and choose which reproductive services their health plans covered. Lisa Smith Mauldin, a 22-year-old customer services manager and divorced mother of two earning $12 per hour, sued Walmart for sex discrimination because it excluded contraceptives from its prescription drug plan. She said the $30-per-month cost of birth control pills was a significant financial burden for her.
As to the religious liberty issue, under the new federal policy, no religious employers will be required to cover birth control against the teachings of their faith. Churches and other houses of worship are completely exempt from having to cover contraception. Other faith-based employers, such as a Catholic school or hospital, may opt out of paying for birth control insurance for their employees, although their insurance provider would then be required to provide the coverage at no cost to the women.
Nonetheless, the Catholic bishops have been relentless in their battle over the contraception rule, and a number of conservative lawmakers have taken their side. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) wrote legislation that would allow any employer to refuse to cover any kind of health service for vaguely described "moral reasons." After that effort failed in the Senate, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowed to continue the fight in the House.
A few states have also joined the religious liberty/contraception debate. New Hampshire legislators recently voted to repeal the state's 12-year-old birth control insurance mandate, and Arizona lawmakers are considering a bill that would force some women seeking birth control for non-contraceptive medical reasons to prove that medical need to their employers before it would be covered in their health plans.
The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the primary political forces opposing the Catholic bishops on this issue, maintains that a woman's liberty should be prioritized over the moral beliefs of her employer.
"The Bishops have doubled-down on demands allowing employers to deny women coverage for contraception based on the employer's, not the woman's, personal beliefs," said ACLU policy counsel Sarah Lipton-Lubet. "A woman's health care needs are what is most important in this debate, and her rights to live her life according to her beliefs, and the freedom to not have someone else's imposed on her."
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