Why Birth Control is Not Beer
At last week’s hearing on religious freedom and the HHS contraception coverage regulations, Catholic Bishop William Lori admitted that he doesn’t believe (as his support of the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act — also known as the Blunt amendment – would suggest) that the right to religious freedom is limitless. In his own words, “rights of conscience should be broadly accommodated unless there is a compelling government interest.”
And though conservatives want to pretend this debate isn’t about contraception, determining whether the economic and health benefits of birth control exist and constitute a government interest to provide access to those services is the heart of the debate.
Based on the recommendation of the independent Institute of Medicine, the administration concluded that the benefits of access to contraceptive services without co-payment were substantial and compelling; it’s the reason HHS chose to include them in the list of mandatory preventive services in the first place.
The U.S. Bishops and others who oppose the mandate disagree. Separate from their concerns about religious liberty, they argue that birth control is a widely available, physically harmful vice that leads to immoral behavior and should not be promoted by the government. Or – as Bishop Lori put it in another misapplied food analogy at last week’s hearing – it’s comparable to beer:
LORI: I do not think that it passes the moral test just to say that if the insurer does it, even if you’re not self-insured. As one commentator said, he said it’s like when you’re in college and you pay the older kid to get your beer for you. It doesn’t really pass the moral test.
This analogy is the product of a host of not-particularly-religious claims about contraception that Catholic conservatives have long cited to justify their theological opposition to these products. Guided by the observation that “pregnancy and fertility are not diseases,” they disagree about characterizations of certain drugs as contraception instead of abortifacents, warn of dangerous side effects of various contraceptives, and promote the inconclusive link between contraception and breast cancer among other objections.
These claims, however, are highly disputed in the medical community and were rejected when the Bishops made their case during HHS’s public comment period preceding this decision. Given the contested nature of these arguments, it’s unsurprising the Bishops don’t want to emphasize them any more.
However, Bishop Lori’s comments reveal that these questions are central to the debate. The Bishops had the opportunity in the comment period to make their arguments just like everyone else. Just because they disagree with the decision doesn’t mean their religious liberty is being violated.