A woman’s right to birth control suddenly became a political question for the first time in recent memory this week, following a tussle over a requirement that religious-affiliated employers cover birth control in health care plans.
Controversy erupted over a new rule announced by President Obama last week, which would require church-affiliated non-houses of worship to cover birth control. Obama quickly backed down from the original rule and suggested a compromise, in which insurance companies, instead of religious employers, would be required to subsidize birth control. If Obama thought this would end the controversy, however, he was sorely mistaken.
The House of Representatives added flame to the fire Thursday morning when the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the new rule in which a panel of almost exclusively male religious leaders discussed the First Amendment ramifications of requiring religious employers to cover oral contraceptives which are–and I hope I’m not surprising anyone–only taken by women.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) defended the hearing, saying that two women (both of whom oppose the rule and contraceptives in general) were in fact scheduled to testify. He blocked the testimony of a third woman, a student at Georgetown University who would have spoken in favor of birth control coverage, because she was not a member of the clergy and could therefore not speak to the First Amendment questions at hand. No female members of clergy were on the panel.
Opponents of the rule say that it would infringe on the First Amendment protection of employers who do not believe in birth control. Catholic leaders in particular have been up in arms about the rule, which goes against the Pope’s denunciation of all forms of contraception (that includes condoms and pulling out, gentlemen).
The question of free speech and religious freedom for churches is not the only one at play here, however. Key to the discussion is the right to health care. Many women depend on oral contraceptives to help control the effects of painful or even debilitating conditions like ovarian cysts or endometriosis. Still more women (even married ones) depend on it to allow them to pursue careers and educations without being forced into abstinence to prevent unwanted pregnancies.
A requirement to provide birth control does not hinder a religious official’s freedom of expression–on the contrary, opponents of the rule have made it clear that they will be heard no matter what. A white supremacist is free to speak out against racial integration, and free to believe that he is superior to those of other races, but has no right to refuse to teach a black child who is placed in his classroom (yes, our hypothetical white supremacist is a teacher). If anyone ever tries to stop Catholic leaders from speaking out against contraception, I will be the first to rush to the leaders’ defense. But freedom of expression and depriving women of medical care are two different things, and any reasonable examination of the issues at hand will lead to the same conclusion.