Message from the President

Everybody Needs to Tell HHS that Religious Discrimination Is Not Acceptable

Jon O'Brien, President Catholics for a Free Choice
Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice.
Photo Credit: Eric Haase.  This picture is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without the express permission of Catholics for Choice.

The Obama administration has announced that starting as early as August of next year, many women will have coverage for contraception with no out-of-pocket costs. At the same time, many other women will be denied this coverage.

Understandably, the focus of the debate has been on the coverage, not the denial of coverage. But in the midst of the maelstrom surrounding the announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) about new regulations for coverage of women’s preventive services, it is easy to forget that these are the facts as they currently stand. Sadly, the many women left behind by these regulations, those working for religious employers, have had their voices drowned out both by extremists opposed to all birth control and those ordering them to remain seated silently at the back of the bus—unseen and unheard as the limelight shines on the positive step for those women who will benefit.

Not surprisingly, the Catholic bishops have a hand in this debacle. Once again, the bishops and their allies seek to impose a refusal clause exempting some employers from having to follow the new and needed increase in coverage. Having failed to convince Catholics in the pews to follow their hard-line ban on all contraception, the bishops are ignoring the consciences of those who work for them by seeking to impose their extremist beliefs on all women, Catholic or otherwise.

As they assure pundits and policymakers that they have the right to determine what healthcare is best for others, the bishops and other conservative Catholics have hardly concealed their outright disdain for their own employees—those who work in diocesan offices, teach in Catholic schools and otherwise serve the Catholic community. Indeed, the head of the Catholic Health Association (CHA), Sr. Carol Keehan, went so far as to imply that the effect of these refusal clauses is somehow minimal by (erroneously) calling it “only” the “parish housekeeper exemption.”

It is disgraceful that the spokespeople for a faith that prioritizes the primacy of individual conscience would be so willing to trample the consciences of others, no matter the cost. It is disgraceful that the head of an organization supposedly committed to social justice would unabashedly look down her nose at a fellow human being simply because of that woman’s occupation. It is disgraceful that some reproductive justice advocates have thrown “the parish housekeepers” and other women affected by these exemptions under the bus. Simply put, they have all accepted a second-class citizenship designation for parish housekeepers and other employees of the church.

Downright discriminatory, however, is the fact that the Obama administration is willing to write all of this extremism into public policy.

In the summer of 2009, we outlined our hopes for what healthcare reform would look like. We believed then, as we believe now, that all women and men, regardless of income, should be able to access contraception that is not only affordable, but free. At the core of this belief is a sincere adherence to our faith’s respect for the primacy of every person’s conscience. Given the Obama administration’s professed commitment to healthcare reform that would be both cost-effective and that would guarantee equitable access, we hoped that those in power would share this belief.

The refusal clauses included in HHS’s regulations for contraception mean that the plan is fundamentally flawed. No person should be left behind in these steps forward, but the proposed regulations will do just that.

One woman who would be left behind is “Sandra,” a science teacher at a Catholic school in the Midwest whose story shows the reality of what many women can see in their future—and is an example of the many who will fall under the type of employer refusal clause that the bishops hope to extend to all.

As with almost all Catholic schools, her employers follow diocesan rules regarding employees’ insurance—meaning no contraceptive coverage, regardless of medical necessity. When she first learned of HHS’s regulations she was outraged. They added, as she explained, “insult to injury” by ignoring the healthcare needs of women like her and allowing her employers to continue denying her coverage.

“I just never assumed that in 2011 I would be denied birth control,” she said. “I’m in my mid-twenties. I have no intention of having kids at the moment. I like teaching kids, but it’s a whole other thing having them.”

“Sandra” lost coverage when she began working under the jurisdiction of her local diocese. “I went to fill my birth control prescription like I always do. I say ‘here’s my new insurance card,’ and they say I’m not covered,” she said. “They thought that it was weird and asked where I worked, and as soon as I said I worked in a Catholic school, they said, ‘Oh, 99 percent of Catholic schools will not cover it. We’ve never had it covered before.’ I had no clue.”

For “Sandra,” this posed a significant hardship. She had taken a salary reduction in order “to go to work everyday saying that it’s what I love” to do. She and her husband had carefully considered their insurance plans and determined that it was more economical for them to remain on separate policies, but once she had to pay out of pocket for the birth control that was best for her, a non-generic brand prescription, their careful financial planning went down the tubes.

“Birth control is a lot of extra money on top of the salary reduction, but the principle of it is really what gets me,” she told us. “I don’t like being told by some guy that I’ve never met that I can’t use it. The bishops are not even having sex in the first place. How are they supposed to know how to tell me what to do in that situation?”

Her story, as she recognized, is all too common and reflects the repeated marginalization of many women by the Catholic hierarchy—the same women whose voices have been deemed unimportant by those on both sides of the contraceptive coverage debate. She first noticed this silencing in her own Catholic home, where her devout grandmother and aunts all used birth control but were “quiet about it, because we didn’t want to anger the boys in the big house.”

With the bishops failing to convince Catholics in her own family, like the majority of Catholics, of their extremist views on birth control, “Sandra” saw the consequences of this extremism on her colleagues, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

“Most of the girls, the first thing they complain about is the lack of birth control coverage. It’s one of those unspoken things that no one talks about, because no one wants to risk their job—it’s hard enough to find a job right now, anyway,” she said. “You also don’t have to be Catholic to work at a Catholic school. I respect the beliefs of some of the parents in our school and others, but for those who don’t believe that or who aren’t Catholic, I think that as your own person, you should be able to do what you believe.”

As she explained, the majority of Catholic school teachers are female, but their access to contraception is determined by those most out of touch with their healthcare needs. The cost, however—and the emotional toll of an unspoken vow of silence—extend far beyond this direct impact on teachers. In “Sandra’s” experience, for the spouses of male teachers, some of whom share their husbands’ insurance policies, and for all teachers’ dependents, some of whom need birth control to regulate medical conditions, the complete lack of access poses a serious hardship.

In the course of telling her story, this one teacher outlined in chilling detail the ways in which the bishops’ own failure to convince Catholics in the pews has translated into their forceful imposition of extremist beliefs on everybody. It is the same story that the bishops hope all women will share, and Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services seems quite willing to let this happen. These refusal clauses do not represent the vision for the Affordable Care Act that we were promised, and we hope that it is not one that the Obama administration is willing to accept.

There is still time for Secretary Sebelius and the Department of Health and Human Services to do the right thing for “Sandra,” her family, her colleagues, their families and the many others who are relying on healthcare reform to ensure contraceptive coverage for all women. While some are busy claiming that this woman and others like her are unimportant, we know better.

We believe that each woman—her conscience, and her health—matters, and we know that if we do not stand in solidarity with every one, we will not only compromise our morality, but we will eventually lose coverage for all. We also know that there are many others, Catholic and otherwise, men and women, who share this conviction. HHS must hear from these people who need to argue strongly and consistently that leaving any person behind is unacceptable.

“Sandra,” whose anonymity was required because speaking up about birth control coverage could mean the loss of her job, may have said it best: “I was told by everybody, ‘What can you do about it? The church is never going to change.’ If it’s just me whining about it, that’s true, but if every woman said something, they’d have to take us into account.”

We are certainly taking her into account. It is high time for others to speak up and tell the Department of Health and Human Services to do the same.

Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien:
Religious Freedom in the Crosshairs

Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien:
Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics