The Magazine

Who Pays for the Pill? (I)

The clash between reproductive freedom and religious conscience

Oct 2, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 03 • By JOE LOCONTE
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If mandates like this become universal, they will affect a staggering number of church-based institutions. Nationwide there are over 21,000 religious schools, plus hundreds of seminaries and religious colleges and universities. Catholic Charities supports 165 diocesan agencies, while nearly 1,000 Catholic hospitals and nursing facilities provide about 16 percent of all hospital beds. The National Association of Evangelicals boasts a member list of over 5,000 religious nonprofits. To that must be added countless doctors, pharmacists, and assorted individual employers who personally oppose birth control and abortifacients.

Catholic leaders have fought the laws in state capitols and helped craft more expansive conscience clauses in places like Maryland and Connecticut. But they have received little help. Pro-life groups, focusing on the fight against abortion, avoid the contraception debate. Rank-and-file Catholics largely disregard church teaching on birth control, while evangelical Christians mostly fail to address the issue.

"Our people don't even think about it," admits Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. "They don't fully realize the long-term agenda." Michael O'Dea, executive director of the Christus Medicus Foundation, which helps Catholic archdioceses set up health insurance plans, agrees. He sees widespread confusion and complacency about health care policies. "It's routine now for insurance companies to cover contraception, sterilization, and abortion," he says. "Many Catholic organizations don't really know what they're subsidizing." Says Myers of Ave Maria Law School, "This stuff is creeping in through the back door."

Political pressures to universalize abortion coverage, however, could easily spark a backlash. Pro-life activists note growing demands on health insurers to cover abortion-inducing drugs such as the "morning after" pill, already available by prescription, and RU-486, still awaiting federal approval. At the same time, frustration deepens with government tax policies that favor work-based insurance, making it burdensome for families to buy alternative plans that uphold their moral beliefs.

Oddly, both sides in this debate see themselves as defending freedom against heavy-handed social engineers. Says Richard Doerflinger, of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, "It's as if we were just arms of the government. It's the idea that there is no such thing as private health care or private conscience." On the contrary, insist pro-choice leaders, employers have no right to impose a religious restriction on their workers' health insurance. "Whose conscience counts?" asked Gloria Feldt on a recent Crossfire. "What about the conscience of the individual who feels that it's very important to plan and space having children until you're ready to take care of them?"

Never mind that inexpensive birth control is available at the corner pharmacy. For many pro-choicers, anything that reduces the convenience of contraception or abortion is a transgression against women. Planned Parenthood, for example, has launched an effort to prevent mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals -- even when they are the only means of keeping facilities open. As the organization's "MergerWatch" director Lois Uttley warned in Redbook, "This is one of the most serious threats to women's reproductive health care today."

Threats abound, to be sure, but not from organized religion. Pro-choice activists claim a social concern to make health services available to women, particularly the poor. Yet they are alienating the very health care providers who do the most to reach the neediest -- religious hospitals, clinics, charities, and shelters. They demand these agencies offer services without discrimination, while they themselves discriminate against groups whose belief in God sustains their caregiving. They welcome religious duty as long as it serves their notion of the public good, even as they advance policies that confine faith to a private ghetto.

"The mask of choice is falling off," says Susan Orr, a policy expert with the Family Research Council. "It's not about choice. It's not about health care. It's about making everyone collaborators with the culture of death." A little hyperbolic? Perhaps, but it's no foible to be troubled when deeply held beliefs are publicly disparaged. It is no whimsy to worry when people are forced to bankroll whatever reproductive practices are in vogue -- today chemical abortion, tomorrow cloning.