Catholic church, contraception coverage collide
Thousands of Catholic Church employees in Wisconsin are now eligible for birth control coverage through their health insurance plans, under the budget bill passed by the Legislature last year.
But because the church considers artificial contraception “gravely immoral,” at least some of those workers – including non-Catholics – could face sanctions, even termination, if they use it, one church official said Wednesday.
“Our employees know what church teaching is. And we trust them to use their conscience and do the right thing,” said Brent King, spokesman for the Madison Diocese, which began covering prescription contraception Aug. 1.
Reproductive health advocates, including the Washington-based Catholics for Choice, criticized the stand, calling birth control “basic health care.”
“The reality is the vast majority of Catholics use contraceptive family planning,” said David Nolan of Catholics for Choice. “And making them access it elsewhere or pay full price because they can’t get it through their insurance is a needless barrier.”
Wisconsin lawmakers last year mandated that all insurance plans that cover prescription drugs offer comparable coverage for contraception. Self-insured employers were exempted.
Organizations such as Planned Parenthood have been urging coverage parity for decades. And the state’s Equal Rights Division has ruled at least twice in recent years that lack of equity constitutes sex discrimination.
The Catholic Church was the main opponent of the measure. In a letter to Wisconsin Catholics last year, the state’s bishops called artificial contraception “gravely immoral” and said it “diminishes the role of God, the giver of life, in marriage.”
When the law was passed, three of the five Wisconsin dioceses – Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay – were affected. Green Bay has since converted to a self-insured plan “in an effort to live out its Catholic faith,” spokeswoman Leah Gabrielson said.
The Archdiocese of Milwaukee is complying with the requirement, but is looking into alternative coverage, according to spokeswoman Julie Wolf. She said the diocese may also consider challenging the law.
Detailed information about Milwaukee’s benefits and policies was not immediately available because church officials were in La Crosse for the installation of William P. Callahan as the new bishop there.
Area Catholic hospital systems Wheaton-Franciscan and Columbia-St. Mary’s are self-insured and, as such, exempt from the provision. Anne Ballentine of Wheaton-Franciscan said the system provides contraceptive medication when medically necessary for other conditions but not to prevent pregnancies.
And at least two Catholic universities, Marquette and Mount Mary, already offered the coverage before the law changed.
Marquette’s policy recognizes that a significant portion of the university’s employees are non-Catholic and that contraceptives are at times prescribed by physicians for purposes other than birth control, spokeswoman Mary Pat Pfeil said.
She stressed that “the choice to use a contraceptive is both a medical decision and a matter of conscience.”
King, of the Madison Diocese, agreed on the role of conscience in such matters, but said a true Catholic could only come to the conclusion reached by the church.
“Conscience isn’t what I want or think is best in a situation,” he said. “It must always align with the will of God.”
Diocese of Madison employees, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, sign a document when they’re hired vowing to abide by the laws of both Wisconsin and the church.
He said employees would receive “strong pastoral recommendations against” using the contraception benefit, but that the diocese has no intention of policing it.
Because of medical privacy laws, he said, the only way the diocese would know is if an employee flouted it “in an overt and publicly defiant way.”
This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.