What Is At Stake?

The American Catholic world is all afire with the recent announcement that appeals to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to allow for broader, religious-based exemptions to mandatory contraceptive coverage in national health care guidelines have been denied.  This means that religious organizations must offer free contraceptive coverage to their employees, even if the religious organization opposes the use of contraceptives.  Not only this, but the coverage must provide for contraception at no cost to the individual – no co-pay or other form of cost sharing.  If an employee wants birth control, they can receive it with no additional out of pocket expense.  HHS allows exemptions to required contraceptive coverage only for churches and primary religious institutions, but is denying the exemption to religious schools, hospitals, and other organizations associated with a religious body but not primarily engaged in religious activities.  The only concession appears to be a one-year period during which such religious organizations are to determine how best they can comply with the mandated coverage.  

The Washington Post covers the decision by highlighting the additional year that religious institutions are being given to comply with the ruling.  HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is quoted as asserting “This…strikes a balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.”  I’m pretty sure that delaying a decision for 12 months is not really a compromise.  It’s a very, very small effort to appear diplomatic and willing to compromise when in fact no compromise is being given.  And how one can defend voluntary contraceptive usage as an “important preventive” service eludes me.  Requiring no cost to the insured is a more expensive options for employers, adding insult to injury.
This article by a British online news service highlights the utilitarian aspects of the decision – it will save money.  The article asserts (no quote) that the decision will help reduce or eliminate “future costs” associated with “treating illness.”  I’m wondering what illnesses free contraception prevents?  Certainly not STDs.  Is the article asserting that pregnancy is an “illness”?  Curious.  A quote from Planned Parenthood asserts that “millions of women” will derive an immediate economic benefit from this decision.  What is that figure based on?  I’d be curious to see data on the estimated number of women employed by (primarily) Catholic organizations that would seek to be exempted from providing this particular type of coverage.  Are there millions of them?  And are all of them currently utilizing birth control that they have to pay for?  And why should contraceptives be mandated as free when almost all other prescriptions carry at least a nominal co-pay?  Curious.
I’m not Catholic, but I strongly empathize with the position of Catholic organizations.  So should you.  Why?  Because the government is forcing institutions and individuals to purchase a product that directly violates their religious conscience.  Whether you agree with the Catholic position on birth control or not is a secondary issue.  What are the implications when the government takes it upon itself to determine not simply what people must have, but must have whether they want it or use it or find it morally offensive?  
Were this an isolated issue, it would be chilling enough.  But when it is coupled with other recent, unsuccessful attempts for the government (Department of Justice) to gain the ability to define who is a minister in a religious institution and who is not, the picture gets more disturbing.  
And for what purpose?  What does the government gain by insisting that there can be no compromise on this matter?  People are free to find employment where they wish.  Nobody is forcing someone to work for a religious organization where they will be denied a particular form of coverage.  How many people are actually affected by this, compared with the large and disturbing implications this sort of decision lays bare?  
Perhaps I’m missing a fundamental argument about why this isn’t a big deal, why this isn’t a blow to religious freedoms in our country.  And if so, I hope someone will point it out to me and I’ll be happy to write a full-blown retraction/amendment to this post.  But I haven’t come across such an argument yet.  Perhaps there isn’t one?

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