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Birth Control and the Bloviators: What Just Happened?

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The author of "Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church" explains what's behind the Catholic bishops' hard-line reaction to President Obama's compromise.

Last week, before the great contraception compromise, as the “old boys club” attacked President Barack Obama for daring to require religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and social service agencies—but not churches—to provide birth control coverage free of charge to their employees, Rachel Maddow had a question.

Given that 28 states have birth control mandates with which Catholic institutions comply, that some major Catholic institutions provide contraceptive coverage, and that new polling shows that the majority of Catholics agree that female Catholic hospital and university employees should have the same right to contraceptive coverage as other women, Maddow asked: How does the Beltway media narrative get so entirely captured by the other side?

For one thing, even random drop-ins on the most popular TV news programs revealed a major contributing factor: few women participated in the conversation (reportedly twice as many men as women appeared on cable shows to talk about the birth control battle). Women like Jodi Jacobson of RH Reality Check and Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches and many others were lighting up the blogosphere on the subject, and if you watched Maddow you would have seen clips of three powerful senators—Barbara Boxer, Kristin Gillibrand, and Patty Murray—digging in their heels to defend women’s rights to contraception. But by and large, women equipped to talk about the issue from a feminist—and a Catholic—point of view on television were few and far between.

Day after day, there was Joe Scarborough, with four or five men (Willie Geist, Sam Stein, Mike Barnacle, Michael Steel, and so on) often talking over—or, in the case of Scarborough, utterly dismissing—the barely audible points made by Mika Brezenski. A pinnacle was reached last Friday, when Scarborough brought in Washington D.C.’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl.

As everyone was fawning all over the cardinal, Stein tried to ask an important question: What about the woman who needs birth control because she has ovarian cancer who won’t have her care paid for because of your position? Scarborough apparently found humor in that. “Have you been talking to your mother, Sam?” he chided. Sam’s mother is an ob-gyn, who’d warned her son that “if he didn’t ask a serious question today, she’d kill him.” Everyone laughed, including Wuerl, who promptly lapsed into his assigned talking points, declaring that “there is a difference between access and freedom… This is about freedom… The real issue is freedom… Our basic freedom,” thereby leaving the woman with ovarian cancer out in the cold. What if that Loretta Ross of Sister Song Reproductive Justice Collective had been there to drop a quick counter punch, to note that “freedom of religion also encompasses freedom from religion,” as she said last week on Democracy Now.

Another factor in the lopsided way this debate played out was that the main religious players in this drama are men who head up a powerful institution that discriminates against women by closing them out of the ranks of clerical power while continuing to act as their reproductive overlords. What that sexist structure ensures is that no woman seated side by side with a Catholic bishop, archbishop, cardinal or even a collared priest will be perceived as having the same gravitas. In that regard, however, President Obama has done something astonishing—particularly so to the nation’s 350 unhappy bishops.

Back when the health care reform battle was raging, Obama refused to play by the bishops’ rules, listening not only to the bishops, but also to a very brave and smart woman, Sister Carol Keehan, head of the influential Catholic Healthcare Association. While the bishops refused to give their support even after they got what they wanted—no public money for abortion—Sister Keehan gave her public and unequivocal support. That led to widespread relief among some Catholic members of Congress and the Catholic laity and helped pass the bill.

As to the birth control compromise that Obama unveiled last Friday—whereby health care insurers, not religiously affiliated employers, would communicate with, provide, and pay for birth control coverage for women working for these employers—Archbishop Timothy Dolan, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), initially declared it to be “a first step in the right direction.” By contrast, Sister Keehan did it again, lending her public full-throated support, which went a long way in leading disgruntled Catholics to fall in line.

One of those disgruntled Catholics was E.J. Dionne—a liberal Catholic who failed to support Obama on the birth control issue—who approved the compromise. He came down hard on the narrowing of the exemption to churches alone because that failed to recognize the religious nature of the missions of Catholic-affiliated institutions. On the PBS NewsHour, Mark Shields made the similar point.

In reality, the Catholic institutions we’re talking about today bend over backwards to show that they are NOT about the business of inculcating religion, evangelizing, or creating colonies of new Catholics; this is a crucial aspect of the church’s ability to attract non-Catholics—and their checkbooks—to these institutions. They may say that they operate out of a Christian or Catholic tradition. But the fact is that the mission of a Catholic college open to the public is to teach; of a Catholic hospital, to heal; of a social service agency, to provide care to needy populations.

In all instances, these institutions must carry out this secular mission in accordance with laws that govern their activities: hospitals have to meet standards to open a diagnostic and treatment center; universities have to take specific steps to get accredited; hospitals and universities have to meet the demands of the Americans with Disabilities Act; a meals program has to follow food safety regulations. If an institution takes on these responsibilities, they have to follow the law. If their beliefs interfere (e.g., making abortions unavailable for trafficking victims), and an accommodation cannot be made, then the religious institution should not get to do that work with public money. On the trafficking issue, that is now the case.

Regarding the compromise, New York Times columnist and NPR and NewsHour commentator David Brooks declared it to be “a fudge and a subterfuge” as well as illogical, but still hailed it. He thought it “showed respect and deference… especially to the Catholic workers who are doing the Lord’s work in these neighborhoods, serving the poor and the needy.” I don’t know who he thinks those Catholic workers are, but they include caseworkers and food pantry staff, shelter counselors and secretaries, hospital cafeteria workers and cleaning ladies in Catholic dorms. How refusing them the right to birth control is a sign of “respect,” he doesn’t say.

By Sunday, while many were still considering the matter at least temporarily settled, the bishops had dug in their heels, rejected the compromise, and actually, come clean. The fact is that protecting religious liberty, safeguarding the consciences of religiously affiliated hospitals, universities, and social service agencies, has never been the bishops’ goal. Rather, they seek the complete elimination of the mandate guaranteeing all American women access to birth control, without a co-pay or deductible, as part of a package of essential preventive services.

In a February 10 USCCB press release that followed the announcement of Obama’s compromise, the bishops argue that exemptions from having to provide or pay for coverage for birth control should be available not only to religious employers and insurers, but also to secular for-profit and nonprofit employers as well as to individual employers with religious objections. Arguing on behalf of those individual employers, Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, complained to USA Today that “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate.”

Bishops who led letter-writing campaigns that stooped so low as to characterize the government’s effort to ensure that all women have preventive health care as a “bigoted and blatant attack on the First Amendment rights of every Catholic believer,” that branded HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius “a bitter, fallen away Catholic,” and went so far as to say “the devil wants to silence the Church’s voice” are unlikely to take their matches and go home. Indeed, despite their compete lack of medical training and in the face of indisputable medical evidence that birth control is crucial for the health of women and babies, the bishops are poised to press on, arguing that birth control is not “preventive care.”

Wuerl trended in that direction on Morning Joe on Friday, paraphrasing what the bishops claimed in their letter last August to HHS that “prescription contraceptives, sterilization and related patient education and counseling” are “not ‘health’ services… they disrupt the healthy functioning of the reproductive system, and they are designed to prevent pregnancy, which is not a disease.”

It’s useful at this point to recognize that this broad demand to end the birth control mandate, as well as the bishops’ successful campaign to forbid the use of public money for abortions in the ACA, are intimately related to the Catholic Church’s approach to sexual ethics. That approach is based on natural law, the notion that there is an unwritten law embedded in all of creation, which humans can decipher through reason and use to build a universally binding moral system. The church sees natural law as applying to everyone, not just Catholics.

That is why the targets of the church’s sexual repression—right here, right now—are not just Catholic women, but all American women. If that feels like mission creep, it is. If that scares you, it should.

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More articles by Tag: Reproductive rights



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