As if it had finally noticed that women out- number bishops, the Obama administra tion has decided against permitting religious organizations a broad exemption from rules requiring that all methods of contraception be covered, with no co-payment, by health insurance plans. Strictly religious organizations—churches, missions and such—will be exempt, but not universities, hospitals and charities. As a public health matter, this is excellent news: for women whose health plans don’t cover birth control, it can be difficult to obtain and costs hundreds of dollars a year out of pocket.
As a political matter it is also good news, a welcome departure from December, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius rejected the recommendation of the FDA’s scientists—an unprecedented move—and decided not to make Plan B, emergency contraception, available over the counter to all girls and women. It’s nice to see someone besides women under the proverbial bus for a change. Still, if I had to choose, I would have expanded Plan B access and let the bishops have their bottle, because normalizing postcoital contraception—yes, indeed, putting it right there in the grocery store next to the aspirin—would help far more girls and women than narrowing the religious exemption. But no, we had those 11-year-old girls to worry about, the ones who would run off to orgies if they could buy EC at CVS.
For some reason, women’s health is never just about women’s health, the well-being of the 52 percent of the population that spends around thirty years trying not to get pregnant. Someone else is always more important: in December it was licentious children; now it’s the anti-contraception clergy. “This egregious violation of religious freedom marks the first time in our history that the federal government is forcing religious people and groups to ante up for services that violate their consciences,” writes Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the Huffington Post. According to Walsh, religious freedom is reserved for “anybody but Catholics.” Nonsense. Are Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists exempt from taxes that pay for war and weapons? Can Scientologists, who abhor psychiatry, deduct the costs of the National Institute of Mental Health? As an atheist, a feminist, a progressive, I ante up for so much stuff that violates my conscience, the government should probably pay me damages. Why should the bishops be exempt from the costs of living in a pluralistic society? Walsh cites the Amish, who are exempt from buying health insurance because they have a conscientious objection to it, but the Amish are a self-isolated band of would-be nineteenth-century farmers; they don’t try to make others read by kerosene lamps or demand the government subsidize their buggies. The Catholic church, by contrast, runs institutions that employ, teach and care for millions of people, for which it gets oceans of public money. A great many of those employed and served aren’t even Catholic: at Jesuit universities, almost half the students aren’t in the church; at Notre Dame, almost half the faculty is non-Catholic, and that is not unusual. The vast majority of Catholics long ago rejected the Vatican’s ban on contraception. Catholic women are as likely to use birth control as other women. What about their consciences?