Why the Birth Control Compromise is not about “Freedom of Conscience”

From the Wall Street Journal:

Vice President Joe Biden said he is confident the administration will find a way to require almost all health-insurance plans to offer free contraception without forcing Catholic institutions to act against their religious beliefs.

His comments Thursday to a Cincinnati radio station came as the White House tried to defuse a growing controversy over its decision to exempt only a small group of churches and other faith-based institutions from the new health-care rule. Catholic groups and their supporters have complained that hospitals, schools and charities will have to pay for contraception, which the church opposes.

I’ve been hearing a lot about how requiring organizations to offer health insurance that includes birth control is a violation of “freedom of conscience.” That’s the same logic that was used to justify pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control. (I opposed the latter idea because of its hypocrisy: the Religious Right tells women that if they don’t want to be pregnant, they can choose not to have sex. I would counter that if a person doesn’t want to dispense birth control, he or she can choose not to be a pharmacist.) This time, however, the “freedom of conscience” logic does not work at all.

The “controversy” (which is a kind way of saying “the ruckus kicked up by the Religious Right”) is about denying “freedom of conscience” to organizations. Not people. Specifically, not women. Since when did organizations have consciences? The members of their boards of executives might have consciences, and they might agree on something, but they emphatically cannot speak for every member or every employee of their organization.

The loudest voice in the fray currently belongs to the Catholic Church. Cries have gone up that the Church should not be forced to “compromise its principles” by offering women paid birth control as part of their insurance package. But whose principles are these? A majority of Catholic women were using the pill as early as 1970. A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute (which is contested by Catholic bishops) estimates that 98% of “sexually experienced” Catholic women use or have used the pill. If the opposition were really about “freedom of conscience,” you’d expect to find different statistics.

The truth is, this “controversy” is about the exact opposite of “freedom of conscience.” It’s about denying freedom of conscience to religious women. The Church (and the other organizations supporting it) are desperately afraid that if they give women access to birth control, they will break down the doors of CVS to get it. The US Council of Catholic Bishops made the following argument:

“[The Guttmacher stat] is irrelevant, and it is presented in a misleading way,” the group said in a statement. “If a survey found that 98 percent of people had lied, cheated on their taxes, or had sex outside of marriage, would the government claim it can force everyone to do so?”

Except the government isn’t forcing women to take birth control. It’s forcing religious organizations to let women choose whether to take birth control. If the religious organizations in question had faith in their members’ convictions, they would not be worried about paying for something they disagree with because they would trust women not to use it. This so-called controversy is about religious officials taking away women’s freedom of conscience and giving it to the Church. “Freedom of conscience” is code for “the right to enforce conformity amongst religious women.” Actual freedom is about having a choice. The Church and its supporters want to monopolize freedom and choice for themselves while taking those things away from their employees and congregations.

Not to mention where this leaves poor women who aren’t Catholic, but just happen to work at Catholic hospitals or charities because there’s no other work in their area. Forcing people who don’t even profess the same faith as you do to live by your rules is most definitely the opposite of “freedom of conscience.”

If this were really about freedom of conscience, it would be a non-issue. Women whose consciences are not bothered by birth control would be able to practice their faith according to their own relationships with God. Women who accept the Church’s teachings would similarly avoid birth control. This is about religious officials’ fear of losing control, fear that their beliefs don’t match those of their congregations, fear that people will wantonly surge toward sinful abandon if not reined in by financial constraints. It’s authoritarianism cloaked in hypocrisy.

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