February 10, 2012

Maine Voices: Catholic diocese's stance on birth control amounts to discrimination

When 99 percent of U.S. women use birth control, it seems a stretch to call it controversial.

By SHENNA BELLOWS Special to the Press Herald

PORTLAND - Ninety-nine percent of all American women will use birth control during their reproductive years. Among Catholic women, that rate is 98 percent.

For me and many women that I know, the recent political fuss about contraception coverage comes as a surprise. Twenty-eight states, including Maine, already require that birth control be covered on parity with other prescriptions that are part of basic health care insurance coverage offered by employers to their employees. That means that by and large, employees of religious institutions that serve the general public -- such as hospitals and universities -- are already benefiting from access to contraception.

Organizations that serve the public and receive government funds -- even religiously affiliated ones like Mercy Hospital or Catholic Charities -- must play by the same rules as everyone else. Women and men of all faiths work at these institutions. They can't discriminate on who they hire or who they serve. And they can't impose their own religious views on their employees or their clients.

The Obama administration did the right thing in requiring insurance plans for nonprofit organizations, except churches, to fully cover birth control without co-pays or deductibles as part of women's basic preventive care. They struck a respectful balance. Just as in Maine, churches are exempt. But nonprofit organizations that serve the public are not. This protects everyone's religious liberty.

Unfortunately, Bishop Richard Malone seeks to turn back the clock by using religion to discriminate. He and the Catholic diocese are publicly calling for a vague and broad religious exemption that would allow employers at nonprofits to discriminate. His proposal would undermine the religious liberty of thousands of Maine women and millions more American women all across the country who choose to use birth control.

The bishop's proposed ban on birth control coverage contradicts long-established constitutional principles of fairness and freedom. Under the Constitution, all of us are free to make personal decisions based on our own religious and moral beliefs, but no individual or group may impose their religious beliefs on the rest of society.

There is simply no constitutional justification for religious discrimination in the public sphere, particularly with organizations that benefit from public funding.

Sadly, the arguments used by Malone and others are reminiscent of arguments used by religious groups during the 1960s to justify racial discrimination. Some religious institutions sought an exemption from the Civil Rights Act so that they could refuse to hire or serve African Americans. While churches alone may legally discriminate in who they hire and who they serve, state and federal law have long established that nonprofit organizations that serve the public cannot discriminate in hiring or serving anyone based on gender, race or religion. Allowing nonprofit organizations to discriminate in insurance coverage based on religion would open a Pandora's box.

The controversy seems manufactured. When 99 percent of American women use birth control, it stretches the imagination to call it controversial.

Lost in the heated political debate is a focus on women's health. Women like me use birth control to prevent unintended pregnancies, protect our health and plan our families.

From the students at Saint Joseph's College to the doctors at Mercy Hospital, Catholic women and women working at Catholic nonprofits use birth control to plan their lives. Health care experts like the American Medical Association and the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine recommend contraception as a preventive service.

The new Obama administration rule is estimated to save women an average of $30 to $50 per month, up to $600 per year or $18,000 over a lifetime. This comes at no cost to the employer because covering contraception is 15 percent to 17 percent cheaper than not covering contraception. Perhaps that's one reason why so many prominent national Catholic-affiliated institutions, including Georgetown University and Boston College, include contraception in their health insurance plans.

The new Obama administration rules protect women's health and religious freedom for all.

Malone should not be able to impose his religious beliefs about birth control on me or the other 99 percent of American women who have used birth control.

Shenna Bellows is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

 

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