Sandy Sasso: Religious institutions and birth control

(Indianapolis Star, March 5, 2013)

Imagine that we had the means to reduce infant mortality and improve newborn health; that we could reduce over 800,000 abortions per year; that we could cut teenage pregnancy by 77%, strengthen family relationships, lessen a woman’s risk of developing endometrial and ovarian cancer and even provide short-term protection against colorectal cancer.  Imagine that the expenses were low and cost-saving in the long run.  Who among us would not celebrate and act to ensure these possibilities for everyone?

The truth is that we have the means:  the availability of contraception.  The tragedy is that instead of celebrating, we are arguing.  The issue has gone from an internal religious debate to a national diatribe.

Individuals or groups certainly have the right to preach against the use of contraception, even if over 98% of sexually active women of childbearing age are not listening, even if contraception has a clear health benefit.  However, they do not have a right to impose their particular morality on others.

Catholic hospitals and educational institutions employ and serve people of diverse faiths.  The Obama administration is not requiring that those organizations provide health insurance which includes contraception.  It is asking insurance companies to provide it free of charge.  If this were to result in higher health insurance premiums to the hospital, an argument could be made that, in effect, the hospital is paying for the service.  But the opposite is true.  Such coverage will lower premiums, since contraception is far less expensive than pregnancy.

In order to convince those who care about a woman’s right to control her health and reproductive choices, an effort has been made to frame this as an issue of religious freedom.   In other words, you can both believe in the need for access to contraception and oppose government’s requiring a religious organization to provide for it in its insurance plans.

It is a popular argument, but it is false.  Catholic churches are not required to provide contraception as part of their health insurance benefits and now, neither are Catholic hospitals or educational institutions.    No woman is required to use it.  Christian Scientists who run secular organizations must provide health insurance even though they preach against seeking medical care.  Jehovah’s Witnesses who do the same must provide insurance that covers blood transfusions, even though that contravenes their religious principles.   As Catholic hospitals expand and absorb smaller secular public hospitals, this issue becomes one of increasing importance.  It is not about religious freedom; it is about religious coercion.

Mainstream religious leaders who represent millions of people of faith – Protestants, Jews and even Catholics – have signed a statement supporting the White House’s decision on contraceptive coverage.   More than 20 religious denominations have policies affirming birth control.   The Rev. Debra Haffner, executive Director of the Religious Institute, a multi-faith organization dedicated to sexual health, education and justice, has said that the present debate is not about religious liberty, “but [about] playing politics with women’s lives.”

We have the cost-saving means to promote and improve women’s health.  Providing access to contraception is about that and nothing else.  Denying it is a disservice to women, prudent medical care and individual and religious freedom.