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HHS and free contraceptives: War on conscience and on children

Mary Hasson

Photo by Bill Kuffrey

“Yay! Free sex!”

So read the Facebook status update posted by “Cheri,” a 20-something, sexually active, single woman.

The occasion?

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommendation that contraceptives and sterilization procedures should be covered by insurers as preventive care—with no co-pay or costs to hip young women like Cheri.

Cheri must have lifted her glass in toast to the Department of Health and Human Services a few days later when, with uncharacteristic speed, they issued new regulations implementing the IOM recommendation. The new mandate (effective in 2012) compels insurers to cover costs associated with FDA-approved contraceptives and sterilization procedures (fittings, devices, pills, emergency contraception, office visits) and counseling—at no cost to patients.

Despite Cheri’s lusty visions of “free,” sexual delight, the new regulations portend bad news for women--low-income women in particular—and for religious believers.

War on Conscience

The regulations include only a narrow religious exemption that allows group health plans of “religious employers” to opt-out of coverage for contraception or sterilization. The exemption offers no protection for the personal conscience rights of individual health care providers or subscribers.

Furthermore, the HHS definition of “religious employers,” covers only organizations with the specific purpose to instill “religious values,” (i.e. not provide health care or an education) and which “primarily employ” and “serve…persons who share the religious tenets of the organization” (rather than serve all comers, as most Catholic health care and social service agencies do). The definition stands Catholic teaching on its head, according to Sr. Mary Ann Walsh of the USCCB, because it “ignores the underlying principle of Catholic charitable actions: we help people because we are Catholic, not because our clients are.”

The  result? HHS regulations, Sr. Walsh says, will “force church institutions to buy contraceptives, including drugs that can disrupt an existing pregnancy, through insurance they offer their own employees…[so] the religious order that runs a Catholic hospital has to foot the bill for surgical sterilizations. And diocesan Catholic Charities agencies have to use money that would be better spent on feeding the poor to underwrite services that violate church teachings.”

We must fight these regulations--and win--for the sake of every doctor, nurse, insurer, or Catholic subscriber whose conscience rebels at the prospect of buying someone else’s morning after pill, sterilization, or contraceptives. (Rep. Fortenberry has introduced much-needed congressional legislation, the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act of 2011,” which amends the 2010 healthcare bill to include conscience protections for individuals and organizations.)

But it’s crucial to recognize the HHS move as the latest assault in a relentless war on conscience rights—a war led by Democrats, abortion advocates, and LGBT activists. They aim to deny conscience rights, period. As Judy Waxman of the National Women’s Law Center asserts, "We don't think there's any authority in the law to have a conscience clause."

It’s not surprising, really. People who don’t believe in absolute moral truth find it absurd to think others do. And if the pro-abortion crowd can’t get rid of conscience protections completely, look for them to distort the meaning of conscience to reflect the more relativistic notion of “what Catholics do.”

The Guttmacher Institute laid the groundwork to do just that with an April 2011 study, “Religion and Contraceptive Use: Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use.” Their data shows near-universal use of contraception by Catholics which, they argue, contradicts the “myth” that “contraceptive use runs counter to strongly held religious beliefs.” Guttmacher analysts assert that because the majority of Catholics don’t have moral qualms about using contraception, it’s irrelevant whether celibate, old bishops do. “Health policy should not serve as a proxy for religious dogma.”

In the meantime, while pro-abortion activists wage war on conscience, their immediate political tactic is to assert a conflict between religious “demands” and “science” (just as they did against sexual abstinence programs and Church’s teachings that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered).

Predictably ‘on message,’ HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced that the guidelines are “based on science.” Catholics for Choice President John O’Brien, the echo chamber for the abortion lobby, deplores the religious exemption as a sign that “science comes second to the demands of the Catholic bishops.” And Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., argues against any religious exemption because, “Science should apply to all women, regardless of where they work… it is essential that we do not allow the culture wars to stand in the way of science.”

War on the Children---Especially the Children of Poor Women of Color

Funny how “science” dovetails nicely with the ‘reproductive rights’ agenda, which assumes that babies are a problem rather than a blessing.

The IOM report states that 49 percent of current pregnancies overall are “unintended”---an unacceptable number at odds with the 1995 IOM goal that “all pregnancies should be intended,” (p. 103). And the IOM focus on unintended pregnancy assumes that “unintended pregnancies” equal “unwanted children” and ignores the complexity of factors behind pregnancy rates.

A 2010 CDC report, for example, found that among unmarried teens, for whom pregnancy presents significant challenges, 14 percent of female teens and 18 percent of male teens still regard an unintended pregnancy positively, feeling “pleased” at the prospect. (Mature, married women would be at least as likely to view an unintended pregnancy positively.) And a compelling three-year study, chronicled in the book, Promises I Can Keep, shows that pregnancy among young, unmarried, minority moms often occurs not for lack of information about or access to contraception but because children represent hope and meaning and provide a path to maturity and responsibility. Free birth control can’t “fix” those underlying needs. 

The real aim for HHS liberals? Curtail births to minorities, especially those on public money. The IOM report notes that unintended pregnancy rates are much higher among young (18-24), unmarried, women of color, especially those on Medicaid. Similarly, a Guttmacher report, titled The Public Costs of Births Resulting from Unintended Pregnancies: National and State-Level Estimates, found that,  “Nationwide, about 38% of all births resulted from unintended pregnancies…[but] 51% …of all publicly funded births were unintended.”

The IOM report (p. 92-93) notes the cost savings (upwards of $5 billion) of steering women towards long-acting contraceptive methods with the lowest failure rates (1%): contraceptive implants, IUDs, and sterilizations. In other words, reduce pregnancy risk by limiting poor women’s choices and short-term decision-making.

The HHS regulations, implementing the IOM recommendations, project troubling eugenic overtones: now that the most expensive, most reliable, long-term methods of contraception (implants, IUDs) are available for free, these methods that will be pushed on poor, minority women. The desired solution: fewer poor, minority children.

One Daily Beast commentator, who touted the cost savings of fewer publicly-funded births, unleashed an ugly torrent of comments from elites who abhor the idea of poor women procreating. For example, “Scott1607” comments that, “Undereducated plus unskilled plus unmotivated plus unparented equals an underwhelming life where one of the few bright spots will be sex.  Throw them some pills to stop producing more of the same and we will all be happier.”  Similarly, a writer nicknamed Sapient Homo argues in favor of “paying for free abortions for women receiving public support.  It’s much cheaper than paying to raise their kids for 20 years.”

Not surprisingly, pro-abortion leaders show no interest in condemning such talk.

Women—including poor women--need to be shown a better way. Throwing more pills and devices at them and pushing long-term contraceptives does nothing to reduce the risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV, and partner abuse—the all-too-frequent consequences of early, uncommitted, and casual sexual activity. Ironically, the same HHS regs that mandate free contraceptives also require stepped up efforts to screen for and treat STIs, HIV, and partner violence—the fruits of sexual promiscuity. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for HHS to encourage an ethic of sexual responsibility, to promote sex as an expression of love and commitment, or to affirm the blessing of children in the context of marriage.)

The new HHS regulations are a not really about giving the Cheris of the world a green light for “free sex.” They are weapons in the stepped-up war on conscience and the unrelenting assault on the gift of children.

The million-dollar question: will contracepting Catholics join the battle to protect conscience and to affirm the blessing of children--or watch, indifferent, from the sidelines?

Topics: Culture , Current Events

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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