Why Birth Control is Not Shellfish

February 29, 2012, 11:55 am | Posted by

Two weeks ago during Rep. Darrell Issa’s hearing on the contraception mandate and religious liberty, Catholic Bishop William Lori made an elaborate analogy in his testimony comparing the mandate to a kosher deli being forced to serve pork to its customers.

As I explained, this was a terrible analogy. Employers providing health insurance are entirely different than restaurants serving customers, and birth control is nothing like pork.

Apparently, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s Asma Uddin didn’t get the message. Responding to a question from Chairman Smith at today’s Judiciary Committee hearing on the same subject, Uddin made the following similarly problematic analogy:


SMITH: What are other examples, what else could the government force religious organizatiosn to provide if this madnate were to remain in effect as is unchanged.

UDDIN: Well, I mean, this mandate has been justified on the basis of the fact that there’s health benefits to providing contraceptives. But the issue of health benefits is not the point. If the government mandated everything that had positive health benefits, it could possibly mandate that everyone drink red wine for heart health even though it violates the religious beliefs of Muslims and Mormons. And it could mandate that everyone eat shellfish even though that violates the religious beliefs of Jews.

Uddin’s comments hearken back to the conservative canard that the Affordable Care Act’s individual coverage mandate would allow the government to force you to eat broccoli.

I don’t know what it is with conservatives and force feeding, but let’s be clear here; no one is going to force anyone to ingest anything, pork, shellfish, birth control pills, you name it. Nor, as Republican committee members fretted about in the hearing, does the government now have the power to force individuals to stop smoking, exercise or make any other personal behavior changes.

The policy question at stake is about setting a minimum requirement of services in commercial health insurance plans — services that are optional for the planholder to use.

Even if Uddin were complaining that the preventive service coverage requirement merely sets a precedent for the government to require that shellfish and wine be included in this list of mandated services in the future, she’d still be off base.

The required free preventive services such as cancer screenings and contraception were recommended by the independent Institute of Medicine (IOM), which reviewed evidence-based scientific and medical research and expert opinion to develop a list of services that fit the guidelines set out by Congress in the Affordable Care Act. So long as the IOM isn’t supplanted by the National Restaurant Association, we don’t have to worry about doctors being forced to write prescriptions for shrimp cocktails.

The IOM’s review was professional, rigorous, comprehensive and open to public comment. To suggest that this process might lead to frivolous inclusions of random foodstuffs demonstrates both a misunderstanding of the system and disrespect for the experts involved.

Exasperated protestations against the unprecedented consolidation of power by a “Big Brother” government intent on taking control of every aspect of Americans’ personal lives may make for exciting campaign speeches, but they have absolutely nothing to do with the policies in question.

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Faculty at Catholic College Urge University President to Drop Opposition to Contraception Accommodation

February 29, 2012, 9:00 am | Posted by

John Carroll UniversityIn another piece of news about Catholics reacting positively to the Obama administration’s religious accommodation on contraception coverage, faculty members at John Carroll University have written a letter to their university president urging him to drop his opposition.

From dotCommonweal:

47 of John Carroll University’s roughly 215 faculty members signed a letter to school president Robert L. Niehoff, SJ, asking him to accept the contraception “accommodation” and include such coverage in employee health plans. The faculty members express their concern that “the bishops have chosen a path of continued confrontation.” Given that the bishops “have rejected the accommodation offered by the administration,” they continue, “leads us to wonder what motivates their continued resistance.”

These faculty members join the Catholic Health Association, the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, Catholic theologians and Catholic social justice leaders in expressing support for President Obama’s sensible approach to protecting the conscience rights of religious employers and women’s health.

In contrast, Catholic bishops have continued to fight the Obama administration, insisting that their particular legal analysis is the only valid Catholic position. But just like the way the Bishops’ misconceptions about abortion funding became a contentious issue in the health care reform debate, this controversy isn’t simply a matter of moral principles, but rather a policy question of how to apply those principles in a complex legal and regulatory environment.

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How an Unscrupulous Birth Control Policy Cost One Woman Her Ovary

February 24, 2012, 9:30 am | Posted by

During last week’s House Committee on Oversight and Government hearing on religious freedom, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) posed a question to the witnesses about women who take oral contraceptives for purely medical reasons, such as those who need to mitigate their risk for ovarian cancer or blood clots.

Catholic Bishop William Lori responded that “our Catholic law of theology…recognizes that the same drug can be used for different purposes with different effects and our plans reflect that, so we should be given credit for the nuance and the understanding that we have already brought to the table.”


That stands as an interesting contrast to the testimony of Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University Law School student who was prevented from speaking at last week’s hearing by Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) for supposedly being “unqualified.” Given a subsequent opportunity Wednesday at a special hearing convened by the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, Fluke relayed stories of her female classmates who have struggled to gain access to the health care that their medical conditions demanded under Georgetown’s insurance guidelines.

One of Fluke’s friends needed birth control bills to prevent ovarian cysts; as a self-identified lesbian, she was clearly not interested in the contraceptive purposes of the pill. However, despite a letter from her doctor detailing her medical needs, she was denied coverage under Georgetown’s plan and unable to afford the high cost of birth control pills on her own. As a result of stopping her treatment, she soon developed a massive cyst on her ovary and underwent invasive surgery to remove it – a surgery which may have compromised her ability to conceive later in life.


This isn’t a small point. 58 percent of women who have used birth control pills report that they use the pill for reasons other than contraception, and 14 percent of women use birth control for purely medical reasons. For these women, access to contraception is not a theoretical debate about religion and politics, it’s a matter of critical health care.

Since, as Bishop Lori clearly articulated, the Catholic Church acknowledges there’s no controversy around providing contraceptive pills for medical needs that fall outside of the usual theological proscription, Catholic employers negotiating religious exemptions ought to do a better job ensuring their policies actually match this principle.

The credit Bishop Lori believes the Church deserves for this “nuance and understanding” should be reserved until these insurance plans actually put it into practice.

CORRECTION: This post originally stated that 95% of women who use birth control pills report that they use it for reasons other than contraception. The actual figure is 58%. 95% represents the number of women who have never had sex who do so. We regret the error.

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Still Debunking the Right’s Contraception Misinformation

February 23, 2012, 4:06 pm | Posted by

birth control pillsIrin Carmon has a great piece at Salon this week debunking the conservative myth (most recently perpetuated by Ross Douthat) that contraception access isn’t linked to lower abortion rates.  As Carmon points out,

…Even if you believe women have no right to terminate pregnancies in any circumstance, it requires serious, willful ignorance to argue that contraceptive access has nothing to with lowering the U.S.’ unusually high number of unwanted pregnancies, which is what we should really be talking about here.

Nick dealt with this same bogus argument when he interviewed Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony List last year. Playing loose with the concept of causation, anti-birth control advocates attempt to explain that since contraceptive use and availability have increased in the same period abortion rates have, contraception has clearly “failed” to reduce abortions.

Carmon takes a detailed look at actual scientific studies that prove Douthat and Dannefelser wrong. She also points out that the U.S. has the highest rates of unintended pregnancy in the developed world, and that increasing access to contraception and accurate sex education can make significant strides in helping support women and families:

Spacing out and planning pregnancies (or avoiding them altogether) improves the overall health of women and babies; the federal Institute of Medicine’s own research has indicated that unintended pregnancy is linked “to a wide array of health, social and economic consequences, from delayed prenatal care and poor birth outcomes to maternal depression and family violence to a failure to achieve educational and career goals.” The new contraceptive coverage guidelines could be the single most significant pro-active policy tool to combat those consequences…

Unfortunately, too many on the Religious Right would rather use this issue as a culture-war cudgel than acknowledge the positive impact contraception has on the lives of individual women and families and our society.

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Catholic Leaders Celebrate Common-Ground Solution on Contraception, Debunk “War on Religion” Charges On Eve of Rep. Issa’s “Religious Liberty” Hearing UPDATE: Audio Available

February 15, 2012, 3:12 pm | Posted by

Prominent Catholic leaders and a former Member of Congress spoke out this afternoon to affirm their support for the President’s revised regulations on contraception coverage, which uphold religious liberty and protect women’s access to health care services.

“It’s rare that good will and substance win over cheap political tricks, but that’s what we saw last week,” said Tom Perriello, former Democratic Member of Congress and current President of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “This is a common-ground solution that comes down on the side of working families while still protecting religious freedom.

Speakers on the call challenged the premise of tomorrow’s 9:30 a.m. House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on religious liberty, held by committee chairman Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA) to investigate President Obama’s alleged “war on religion.”   Rep. Issa plans to call a number of Catholic and university leaders who oppose the contraception accommodation.  Catholic leaders on today’s call made clear that “war” imagery should never be associated with the faith community and that the White House has approached this issue in good faith and worked with diverse leaders to find a solution.

Many of the speakers did not support the initial religious exemption ruling were pleased to see the Obama adminstration engage with Catholic leaders and others to find a solution last week that assuaged religious liberty concerns voiced by a number of religious leaders.

Stephen Schneck, Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America (whose president John Garvey will testify in opposition to the accommodation at tomorrow’s Oversight hearing), said Friday’s announcement of the revision to the regulation “by and large resolved the religious liberty concerns.”

“I am confident this accommodation creates mechanism to establish greater moral distance between Catholic institutions and contraception than we have had before,” said Schneck.

The ongoing controversy now hinges on demands by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and politically conservative religious voices for a policy to provide exemptions for any employer who wishes to deny contraception coverage to his or her employees, not just employers connected to religious institutions. The difference of opinion and interpretation is critical to understanding the current state of play with this debate.

“I believe in everything my church teaches,” said Nicholas Cafardi, Dean Emeritus and Professor of Law at Duquesne University. “This is not a question of dogma, it’s a question of how we apply dogma in the real world.”

Other speakers raised the tension within Catholicism with engaging in society and working across faith lines towards shared goals with following and abiding by church teaching.

“Catholics have always thought that we need to balance the good that can be achieved in cooperation, like providing health care to the most vulnerable, with the need to refrain from getting too close to sinful behavior,” said Cathleen Kaveny, John P. Murphy Foundation Professor of Law and Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Last week, prominent Catholic leaders (including several speakers on today’s call) released a statement supporting the accommodation, and major Catholic institutions like Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Health Association also came out in support.  The revised contraception regulation allows religious institutions to opt out of providing contraception coverage for employers, and enables employees to instead obtain contraception directly from insurance providers.

“There has been a good will effort to resolve this, and we will continue to stay in dialogue,” said Sr. Anne Curtis with the Institute Leadership Team of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas.

The Catholic organizations in support represent a broad cross-section of the Catholic community and the biggest providers of social services:


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