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The Essence of Immorality

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Today, the U.S. Catholic Bishops are meeting to strategize on their campaign to remove contraception coverage from health care reform. They've already prompted Congressional hearings against the coverage and instigated lawsuits against the federal government over it. During the past few weeks, the Bishops have ratcheted up the rhetoric in a desperate effort to reframe their position, unpopular even among a majority of U.S. Catholics, around their poll-tested talking points. On Saturday, Cardinal Weurl, the archbishop of Washington DC, became the latest to try to move the needle. Contraceptive coverage, he decried, is "an invasion of our religious liberty." This specious argument, now a mantra of the Bishops, could backfire on them.

The President, by including contraception as a primary health care benefit for women, has ensured that, no matter where a woman works, she will have access to family planning if she wants it. The average American woman spends 27 years of her life attempting to prevent pregnancy. She spends only three out of her 30 or so reproductive years trying to get pregnant, being pregnant or breastfeeding (when the chance of pregnancy is greatly diminished.) It's during those remaining 27 years, however, when women rely on artificial contraception to prevent pregnancy. A whopping 99% of American women in their reproductive years have used artificial contraception, including 98% of Catholic women. Given the prevalence of need and use, classifying contraception as a primary preventive health care benefit was recommended by all the women's health experts assembled by the National Institutes of Health to decide what women's preventive health services would be covered in health care reform. The inclusion of contraceptive coverage ensured family planning decisions can be made by the woman herself, not her boss.

Anti-contraception stalwarts, led by the Catholic Church, objected as the President had anticipated they would. The White House issued clarifications on the contraceptive coverage piece soon after. The President's "rule" or "accommodation" exempted religious bodies, like actual churches or temples, deeming it their right to limit their employees access to family planning. Churches, the explanation goes, as the physical manifestation of a religion, can expect of, and impose on, their employees the execution of its religious tenets. The President's rule makes a different accommodation for religious employers that are not churches, like Catholic colleges or hospitals, that object to contraception. These employers would not have to pay for, or play any administrative role in, the contraception benefits their employees use. Instead, the health insurer provides the contraception directly to women and the cost will be paid with the savings the insurer collects in averted maternity and neo-natal health services costs (as a result of greater access to contraception). Every dollar spent providing family planning to the insured results in $4 savings in those once-unintended and now-averted maternal and neonatal health needs. The President's novel solution was and remains completely acceptable to many prominent Catholic employers, including the Catholic Health Association, the University of Notre Dame, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and Catholic Charities USA.

But for the Bishops, the only safe hiding place was behind the most abstract of arguments. As long as there's contraceptive coverage in health care reform, they claim, even if the employer doesn't pay for the contraception or do any paperwork for the insurance benefit to which they object, there is no way they will be fully protected from having to play a role in providing contraception to employees. Asma Uddin, of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, represents three plaintiffs who have filed suit to block implementation of contraceptive coverage, explained in her testimony at the Congressional hearing, "the provision of so-called free contraceptives still depends on the religious employer purchasing insurance for its employees." For Uddin, this means, "While they [the religious employer] might not be paying for the [contraceptive] drugs, they are still facilitating their use by employees."

So, the tortured logic goes, if the Bishops were to accept the President's "rule," they would, by default, grant women unfettered access to contraception. In the Bishops' view, the President's workaround makes those opposed to contraception, by stepping aside, the chief, albeit passive, enablers of widespread contraceptive access. So, therefore, any firewall that exempts them from partaking in contraceptive coverage will still "force" them violate their anti-family planning beliefs.

The Bishops' position, however, is best viewed as an admission. If there's no firewall sufficient in the case of contraception, which is what they suggest, then the Bishops and all Catholic charities must explain how they are able to keep the massive amounts of federal funding they receive from being used to promote their religion and lobby to impose it in law, which would be unconstitutional.

Because, funny enough, the guys who can't find a firewall thick enough to protect them from violating their religious practices on contraception enjoy no firewalls between the federal funding they receive and the activities they do. Catholic groups receive a staggering $650 million per year in federal funding (most of this tax-payer money goes to the Bishops and Catholic charities.) This massive sum goes into the firewall-free coffers of Catholic groups, which are also, amazingly, subject to no federal lobbying reporting requirements either, with no checks in place to ensure it's not used to actively pursue their powerful religious and political agenda. These federal funds commingle with the private funding they receive and underwrite their religious activities as well as their current work to block contraceptive coverage.

If the Bishops insist there's no firewall great enough to protect them from our contraceptive activities, then they also must admit there's no firewall great enough to protect us from their religious activities. Applying their own logic to themselves, they're violating the separation of church and state doctrine, and as such, they simply must recuse themselves from receiving any federal funding. This is a Pandora's Box of their own making. As Jane Addams, 19th century women's right's leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a person who set new moral benchmarks for society, once explained, "The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself." And, as the Bishops would be the first to say, there should be consequences for immorality.