Whose Freedom of Religion and Conscience?

Edd Doerr

On January 20, 2012, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (a Catholic) issued regulations, effective next year, that would require church-related institutions such as hospitals, universities, and social service agencies to provide coverage for birth control in their employee health-insurance plans and without a co-payment.

The new HHS regulations were recommended by the Institute for Medicine, which the Obama administration commissioned to come up with a list of preventive services needed for women to remain healthy. The list included increased access to birth control. The Institute found the following:

  • About half of all pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, and of these about 40 percent end in abortion. Rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion fall as birth-control use increases. And co-payments result in lower contraceptive use.
  • Unintended pregnancies are associated with depression, increased drinking and smoking, delay or neglect of pre-natal care, and low-birth-weight babies. Too closely spaced births cause similar problems.
  • Birth-control pills are also used to treat a range of women’s medical problems.
  • Risks and side effects of contraceptive use are “minimal,” and death rates from contraceptive use are lower than from continuing pregnancies to term.

Excreta Hit the Fan

As expected, the Obama administration’s birth-control regulations loosed a tsunami of outrage and abuse from the usual suspects. Catholic bishops, Republican presidential hopefuls, conservative columnists and flacks, and religious Right bloviators flooded the print and electronic media with overheated invective. President Obama was accused of declaring war on religion, on Catholics, on decency, and on motherhood and apple pie.

Archbishop and cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, got a lot of play in the media. I found this amusing, as Dolan is not exactly an exemplary religious leader. In the February 3–16, 2012, issue of the respected National Catholic Reporter, Catholic journalist Jason Berry wrote that when Dolan was archbishop of Milwaukee a decade ago, he shifted around $40 million or so in church funds to avoid having to use any of it to compensate the victims of clergy sexual abuse.

But reason and common sense came out on the other side.

Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, wrote this in the Washington Post on February 5 in response to a frantic column by former Bush aide Michael Gerson: “Tellingly missing from this analysis: The profound and beneficial effects on the millions of American women and their families, Catholic and non-Catholic, Democratic, Republican and independent, whose health-care decisions are too often thwarted by a small, powerful cadre of men who have zero credibility with many lay Catholics when it comes to contraception. Churches across the country are filled with good Catholics, the majority of whom use contraception and have no objection to it.”

Catholic theologian Daniel Maguire had this to say in the February 6 New York Times:

An accurate look at Catholic teaching on contraception today shows strong support for the position that contraception is not only permissible but even mandatory in many cases.

The American bishops are at odds with the other bishops in the Catholic world, with the vast majority of Catholic theologians and with 98 percent of the Catholic laity who have used contraceptives. They are even at odds with Pope Benedict XVI, who has approved the use of condoms “in the intention of reducing the risk of infection.” That concession logically ended the taboo on condoms since it said health care concerns can require the use of condoms.

The bishops’ claim that their religious freedom is threatened is bogus. The threat is to the religious freedom of their employees and to the conscientious freedom of the diverse public they serve in their tax-supported institutions.

To which I say, way to go, bro.

Catholic congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) said pretty much the same thing in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post. She noted that the average cost of contraception comes to $600 per year, or $18,000 over the thirty years that the average woman uses birth control. DeLauro writes that churches, synagogues, and other purely religious institutions are exempt from the new rules. As I pointed out in the Washington Examiner on February 6, “The Obama administration’s HHS rules are actually a good compromise.”

Finally, as Cathy Lynn Grossman noted in USA Today, the February 7 Public Religion Research Institute poll shows that 55 percent of Americans want employer health-care plans to cover birth control at no cost, a view held by 58 percent of Catholics, 50 percent of white mainline Protestants, and 61 percent of the religiously unaffiliated.

On February 10, President Obama announced that the rules had been tweaked slightly, a compromise that was accepted by the Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities. But the bishops remained adamant.

I stand with O’Brien and Maguire. Claims by the bishops and their counterparts on the evangelical religious Right that the new HHS regulations violate their religious freedom fade to insignificance before the freedom-of-religion and conscience claims of the vast number of Catholics and non-Catholics employed and served by Catholic hospitals, universities, and social service agencies. And few other than Maguire and myself have called attention to the fact that these institutions are generously funded by taxpayers of all religious persuasions. Let me repeat for emphasis: Catholic and other church-related hospitals, colleges, and social service agencies are largely funded by taxes extracted from citizens of all religious persuasions.

We can only marvel at the arrogance—yes, arrogance—of the church brass who not only seek to impose their medieval, misogynist views on everyone but also want government to help them do so with public funds. These are the guys who have done precious little about the epidemic of clergy sexual abuse in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Ireland, Spain, and so many other countries.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.


On January 20, 2012, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius (a Catholic) issued regulations, effective next year, that would require church-related institutions such as hospitals, universities, and social service agencies to provide coverage for birth control in their employee health-insurance plans and without a co-payment. The new HHS regulations were recommended by the …

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