Months ago I shared here that there was a debate within the Obama Administration as to whether under the Affordable Health Care Act employers' health plans would be required to cover contraceptives for women and without co-pays. It would have to do that, and again, free of charge, if contraception were to be regarded under law as a preventative health service. Independent estimates suggested that so doing would save middle- and working-class, and poor women, hundreds of millions in out-of-pocket co-pays--often up to $50 per month per woman--and also save society-at-large in public costs related to unplanned pregnancies. Those costs are far greater, year-to-year, than the cost to employers of having to carry insurance that pays for women's contraceptives.
This past week, over the protests of the Church, the Obama Administration took a decision: employers' insurance must, in fact, cover women's contraception.
Like the decision of states whose adoption laws require all agencies who want public state contracts to welcome same-sex prospective adoptive couples, this decision has roiled the Church. In the state-agency cases (in states that honor same-sex partnerships and/or marriages) the Church has vehemently protested this most recent decision, and, in the equality states, the Church has broken its adoptive- and social services contracts with the states. Catholic Charities chose to abandon millions of families it had formerly served. In the case of the new contraceptives-coverage rule where there are no contracts for the Church to consider breaking, the Church has threatened suit.
As Robert Pear in the NYT writes, "The rule takes a big step to remove cost as a barrier to birth control...a longtime goal...of experts on women's health." Now, the rule does exempt some religious employers--those who hire within the religion only--but not those who employ what the law calls large numbers of people outside of the institution's affiliated faith. (Many Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant universities, social service agencies, schools, and hospitals do.) The U.S. Bishops want far broader exemptions, ones that would allow Catholic institutions to deny contraception service coverage to all employees no matter how many employees, no what percentage of non-Catholic doctors, teachers, lunchroom employees, social workers, nurses, nurses aides, etc., its institutions employ.
The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC
This situation isn't precisely like the gay couple/adoption disagreement. In that case, again, Catholic Charities chose to withdraw from existing state social service contracts in order to avoid providing services to LGBT citizens. In this new controversy, the Church alleges its religious freedom has been threatened. And yet, to a non-Catholic female employee, it's simple to see how one could feel legitimately discriminated against. And the fact is, Catholic hospitals, its larger schools and universities, for instance, believe they must hire outside the faith and actively recruit non-Catholics if, for no other reason, they employ so many people and cannot fill positions with Catholic professionals only. Yet these Catholic institutions recruit actively outside the faith also because they value a certain degree of religious and background-diversity in the ranks as a basis for good neighborhood and regional relations, and because many of their lay (and even many clerical) administrators believe an at least somewhat diverse professional mix tends toward a greater consistent professional excellence. (This is also true for many Jewish and other kinds of Christian institutions who hire broadly.)
My sense of this is that were we to exempt Church-related employers from having to provide the contraceptive coverage that every other employer must, then, in effect, society-at-large would be burdened. Society would have to subsidize the costs when any female Church-related employee so denied were to show in an emergency room with any avoidable, pregnancy-related medical condition that could have been prevented by contraception. We would be subsidizing through taxation a rather narrow, exclusively religious view as to contraception. That's, for me, untenable. And it would, for me, be unacceptable were the largest religiously-affilliated employers be Jewish institutions as well, say, Philadelphia's Einstein Hospital, L.A.'s Cedars-Sinai, or my own original teaching-home, Akiba Hebrew Academy, just west of Philadelphia whose faculty and staff was and remains religiously diverse.
Note too, that while churches themselves are not what the law calls 'public accommodations', its hospitals, day care centers, and many of its affiliated schools and other service agencies, are. They welcome people of all faiths as staff and welcome clients and patients and students of all faiths, and thrive when they do. The idea that these institutions are fundamentally private is at best suspect. They should have to live by the rules that all public accommodations live by.
So, I ask you now: given the medical, legal, social- public relations, gender, broadly economic, and professional issues attendant to this decision, what's your considered sense of this?