Religion Today

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Birth Control and Religions

It is a misnomer to say "women use birth control." Women and men use birth control. Pregnancy can only happen with the involvement of men and, so any steps taken to prevent pregnancy benefit both men and women. Sexual intimacy constitutes a key ingredient of marriage, and the ability to engage in it regularly benefits both partners.

Given the current state of medical practice, the burden and cost of long-term birth control usually falls on women, both financially and medically. Couples who choose to use birth control, as well as their existing families, profit in numerous ways from women shouldering this burden.
From this perspective, it is a benefit to women especially, but also to men, that birth control is included in the new medical insurance guidelines issued in August 2011. The guidelines identify coverage for basic medical procedures and drugs. This, at least, lifts the financial burden.
Unfortunately, the universal applicability of last August's guidelines impinged upon religious belief and practice. Although the guidelines did not require churches and other central religious institutions to provide this benefit in their insurance, they did require religiously sponsored institutions, such as hospitals and orphanages, to do so.
When the Catholic Church and other religious organizations protested, a compromise plan was put forward that allows religious institutions to avoid directly supporting birth control in the insurance, but provides that benefit to employees who desire it. Like many compromises, the new plan satisfies neither side. In this election year, access to contraception has now become a matter of political debate.
Accusations have been made that the contraception requirement violates First Amendment rights to freedom of religion. Others argue that lack of such a requirement violates the insured woman's Fifth Amendment rights to due process under the law.
The heat generated by these charges hides a more constitutionally significant problem. In previous First Amendment cases, a religious organization or individual is nearly always pitted against an outside entity. In this situation, the rights of a religious organization are pitted against the rights of religious individuals, even those of its own members.
To streamline the discussion, let's take the simplified scenario of a hospital owned and operated by the Catholic Church, where all its employees belong to the Catholic Church. Catholic doctrine deems birth control a sin (punishable by exclusion from communion). Since all the employees belong to the Church, one might think that it would be fine for the hospital to exclude birth control from its health plan.
But it turns out that Catholic parishioners do not agree with or even follow this doctrine. A recent survey indicates that 98 percent of Catholic women who have been sexually active have used birth control. That also means that approximately 98 percent of men married to these women have used birth control. While it is unclear from the survey what percentage of the entire Catholic laity that equals, Catholics are the only large religious group in the United States where the majority of members think that birth control should be included in health benefits.
If this disagreement went to court, it would turn out that the judge would be required to decide between a religious institution and the majority of its members. The court would be put in the position of either enforcing religious doctrine on recalcitrant members or declaring the freedom of religious people from having their rights violated by their own religion.
As the legal principles of the separation of church and state have been developed in our country, a key criterion is that the government should not become entangled in matters of religion. Having to decide between a religion's leaders and its followers certainly constitutes undue government entanglement. I can only say that we live interesting times.

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  • You wrote:
    "Since all the employees belong to the Church, it should be fine for the hospital to exclude birth control from its health plan."

    However, this is not so. The argument, rather, far over-extends the meaning of the amendment about freedom of religion. Clearly, any such amendment can only be an internal one, that is it affects that which stays within the realm of religion, but is inferior to anything and everything that exceeds religion.
    Here, the interest of real persons is at work, a value very much higher that that of religion. And the interest of society at large is of interest too, again a value higher than that of mere religion.
    Your statement, however, puts the interest of religion higher than that of people or society. That is absurd! A church, which is NOT a religion, is an entity that acts within society and that has to abide by all law. It does not matter whatever fictitious rules a church has raised to the idea of religion (that IS the essence of the content of the religion amendment). And so it shall be: It is protected to follow ideas however ludicrous, but ONLY within the framework of religion. In privacy and WITHOUT affecting a single person (for instance, ones own children) aside from the person who makes the conscious choice to follow the ludicrous idea.

    Health care plans can, therefore, not be excluded from hospital policies because they have been founded by a church, not as a religion. Churches MUST abide by the law. It is only the religion that they follow which is excluded from the rule of reasonableness, a church can never be excluded.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/05/2012  

  • The provision of universal health care would obviate the need for employer sponsored insurance(ESI), and consequently the need to compromise the needs of women and society by bending to the views of religious entities.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/05/2012  

  • Agreed! See my previous column, "What might have been."

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 4/05/2012  

  • YoungGandalf, I seem to have inadvertently written a sentence that was unclear--which you have identified. I have now changed the sentence. You may still disagree with my point, but it now says what I intended.
    Paul Flesher

    By Blogger Paul Flesher, at 4/05/2012  

  • This is a disturbing turn of events, that religious persons would allow or even invite government involvement in decision-making regarding their internal practices and doctrines. I understand the reasoning on both sides concerning why, but asking a secular court to arbitrate this particular case would seem to be in direct violation of the recommendations made in 1 Corinthians 6:1-7...if the Catholic Church and its members are willing to give up their autonomy in making decisions about birth control access, what else will they allow the government to decide on their behalf?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/05/2012  

  • The Catholic Church, unable to convince its own members that birth control is wrong, is basically asking the government to do it for them.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/05/2012  

  • On various blogs I am beginning to read comments from Catholics stating that contributing to any health insurance plan that provides birth control is forcing them to sin. Really? Every Catholic who works for a non-Catholic business has been contributing to health insurance that provides birth control. Before this issue became politicized I do not remember the Catholic church telling Catholics to quit their jobs because they are sinning. I do not remember any Catholics complaining that paying their health insurance premium is forcing them to commit a sin because birth control is part of the health plan.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/05/2012  

  • I have always disagreed with the idea that churches can get away with things that other businesses (which they are) and individuals cannot. If a church is excused from paying taxes due to being a non-profit, why are they allowed to make a profit with businesses and hospitals? If they do make a profit, they should have to pay taxes. If they employ ANYONE, they should be subject to the same employment law as any other business.
    Also, according to the law, no doctor is allowed to disclose a patient's medical history to anyone without that patient's approval. If an employee of a Catholic business does NOT consent, then their employers (the church) should have no access to his/her medical records and no say in what their medical care is. Period.
    I am looking forward to the day when religion has no place in our government.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/08/2012  

  • I think that you covered the issues quite nicely but I would like to add another level or two to that of the constitutional issue of religious freedom as represented by the First Amendment. The Fifth Amendment relating to due process refers to criminal cases, although birth control in many states in the U.S. was a crime during the late 19th and early 20th century until Margaret Sanger came along to challenge the Comstock Act of 1879 beginning around 1910. It is the 14th Amendment that creates due process for all citizens and which then was supported by the 19th Amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1964 including specifically all minority groups which in theory included women . The most recent piece of legislation on equal rights for women was Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. This prohibits sex discrimination in federally-funded education programs and activities.
    I wanted to point out that the issue of who uses birth control has been a contentious issue in American society for over 100 years which has been “fought” on the religious level officially. However, the real issue is one of control over who has the right to decide to use birth control—Women? Men? The church? The government? As Dr. Flesher points out in the blog, men (and the government) benefit from the use of birth control in health, planning, family stability, economics and so on. The Catholic Church benefits from the non-use of birth control in large families, more church members, and probably a greater belief in fatalism which contributes to the control of church members by the Catholic hierarchy. For the Catholic Church, having female members who think on their own is not conducive to the traditional path of the male hierarchal pattern of control which it (The Church) has wielded since the founding of the Church as a state church with the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 300s a.d.
    Why so much history? Only to point out that women in almost all societies have had a secondary citizenship and the “battle” for women to decide on what she can and cannot do with her own body is still a matter of contention in the 21st century in many, if not most, modern, industrial and post-industrial nations. We can still pass laws on equality, but equality in the U.S. does not yet exist for women in legislatures, in the church and in the bedroom as seen in the controversy over birth control.
    Yes, we do live in interesting times, but the struggle for the control of women is central to the possession of power in the world today as in the past.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/09/2012  

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