August 04, 2011

Life, liberty, and free contraceptives?

By Andrew Haines *

Beginning next year, American women will have access to publicly-funded contraceptives under the Obama healthcare plan — and all without copays.

Following last month’s recommendation by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that contraceptives and sterilization procedures be classed as “preventive services,” the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) — headed up by Kathleen Sebelius — concluded that “Not [covering contraceptives] would be like not covering flu shots.” In short, according to Sebelius and the current administration, women have a basic right to affordable healthcare; and access to cheap birth control is part and parcel of that right.

In response to the HHS decision, conservative groups have been indignant. In addition to the suspect claim that women have a basic right to affordable birth control (or even affordable healthcare), most unnerving is the very limited conscience protection clause introduced as a feature of the decision. According to Jeanne Monahan, head of the Family Research Council’s Center for Human Dignity:

HHS offered a fig leaf of conscience protection for certain churches that fulfill very specific criteria. However, religious groups that provide social services, engage in missions work to people of different religious faiths, religious health insurance companies, let alone religious health care providers and individuals in such health plans are not protected from any discrimination whatever. The new rule will force many Americans to violate their consciences or refrain from participating in health care insurance, further burdening an already costly system.

Moreover, as drugs like Ella and Plan B are included as part of the coverage — drugs that are shown to be abortifacients and not simply “contraceptives” — it’s not just those opposed to contraception that should be worried. Rather, it’s anyone who opposes public funding for abortion — indeed, a much higher number of Americans.

Per usual, the most vocal support for the decision comes from groups with a perceptible pro-abortion bent. And the rhetoric is as poisonous as always. Cynthia Pearson of the National Women’s Health Network remarked in favor of the decision:

Over a span of generations from grandmothers to granddaughters, we have come from birth control being a hope and a wish — and almost luck — to being recognized as a part of health care that improves women's health.

Never mind, of course, that alternatives to artificial birth control have and do exist; and that the rates of method success far surpass that of condoms, the pill, or other physical or hormonal devices.

The simple fact remains: although amongst sexually active women the rates of birth control usage are nearly one-to-one, nothing of this situation makes birth control a “right,” or identifies it as something we “ought” to offer as subsidized.

Maybe the most alarming feature of the HHS’ move is the elimination of copays from contraceptive access — no doubt an effort to appeal to, and even enforce usage amongst women in economically dire situations. More than simply making contraceptives and sterilization “equally accessible” for such women, the provision highlights them as primary beneficiaries of the plan.

Removal of copays on contraceptive “prevention” also, it seems, leaves the door open to a host of unattractive future contingencies. For example, not only will taxpayers be funding handouts of the pill, Plan B and Ella. They’ll also be paying for newer and more advanced methods of birth control (e.g., surgical and highly invasive methods) — methods that cost even more money, and that divert even more national resources away from efforts that are truly necessary.

It’s no stretch to say that the elevation of contraceptive (and abortifacient) access to the status of a “basic right” is harmful not only to children in utero, but also to American women, and to our nation as a whole. Responsibility in the realm of sexual health can’t be reduced to shortcut solutions to real problems. No one would argue that widespread and skyrocketing numbers of unintended pregnancies aren’t something that needs to be addressed. But attacking the symptoms rather than the cause is a clear sign of shortsightedness and, quite frankly, impotence on the part of our current administration — Sebelius and President Obama, most especially.

To the contrary, what’s required in facing such challenges is a response rooted not in reactionary sentiment, but instead upon a foundation of right reason and prudence. This is especially true as regards the dignity of human sexuality and personhood — both in the case of women as well as their children. But it’s also vital in working to protect the meaning and longevity of the rights we enjoy as Americans.

When access to affordable birth control ranks alongside a right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, something is askew. And the problems brought along in its wake might well be enough to jeopardize those rights that truly are fundamental and universal.

Andrew Haines is president of the Center for Morality in Public Life and a PhD student in Philosophy at The Catholic University of America. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Kathleen, and their son.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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