Half-Pregnant Contraception Debate

No one is half pregnant–you’re either pregnant or you’re not.  A similar situation seems to have arisen in our country on a related topic:  Can you provide contraception without providing contraception?  Or, to use another image:  how do we divide Solomon’s baby?  And who, in this instance, is the baby to be divided?

If you’ve somehow missed this news, here’s the summary.  The Obama Administration released a draft policy exempting houses of worship from paying for free contraceptive coverage required under the new health care law.  However, religiously affiliated organizations and institutions, such as hospitals, must give this health coverage to their employees.

Because some religious groups oppose contraception for theological reasons, this policy places us on the tightrope of the Constitutional separation of Church and State.  In other words, can the State ever require religious bodies to do something that is against the offical doctrine the group?  If so, on what basis?  If not…are you sure?

In addition to the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrines of certain Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and Mormon groups oppose contraception, as well.  They oppose it because it negatively affects God’s ability to create life.  Even while the official teaching of these groups opposes contraception, most women practitioners of these faiths use it anyway.  Ninety-eight percent of sexually active Catholic women use contraception, and about 98% of all American women surveyed have used contraception.  Nearly 50% of these women would have used it more frequently than they did,  but couldn’t always afford it when needed.  In addition, many women use birth control medication not to regulate pregnancy, but for debilitating health problems for which hormone treatment is necessary.

Here are my first questions.  I’m sure I’ll have more by tomorrow.

  • Should institutions such as hospitals and schools affiliated with religious bodies whose doctrines oppose contraception, be required by the state to pay for contraceptive medical coverage for employees or is this an intrusion by the State into Church matters?
  • If employees’ household income is so small that they must choose between for food, medicine, rent, a foreclosed mortgage, utilities, or shoes for their children, where will they find $50-$100/month out-of-pocket for contraception?  Are their only choices either to be deprived physical intimacy in marriage or to risk pregnancy?  How can the needs of such people be balanced with those whose religious beliefs forbid contraception?
  • Since many of these same religious bodies accept or advocate capital punishment that prematurely ends life, how does that square with opposition to contraception?  Capital punishment ends life more surely than contraception does and definitely puts humans–not God–in charge of life and death.  Are other, unstated issues are at stake?
  • Which is the greater sin:  abortion, which increases when contraception is unavailable, or contraception itself?  Do all sins deserve an equal rating?
  • Does the prohibition on contraception include vasectomy?  Are men required to pay out-of-pocket for this procedure as women employees are for our methods of contraception?

The ethical tension over boundaries between Church and State in the U.S. goes beyond contraception.

  • If a college is loosely affiliated with Jehovah’s Witnesses–a religious entity doctrinally opposed to blood transfusions–should that college be required to give employee health insurance that covers blood transfusions?  Or should an employee who is not Jehovah’s Witness and needs/wants a blood transfusion have to buy transfusions blood out-of-pocket?
  • The Roman Catholic Church, as well as some Protestant bodies and Jewish groups are also doctrinally opposed to divorce.  This doctrine is so important that many divorced Catholics are not permitted to receive the eucharist.  Therefore, should the mental health portion of employee health plans prohibit discussion of pre- and post-divorce anger, grief, depression, and anxiety during counseling sessions?  If these topics arise in counseling, must the employee pay for the session out-of-pocket?
  • If the doctrine of some religious organizations teaches that men can marry under-age females as young as 12 and physically abuse children, does the State have the right to intervene?
  • Does the State have the right to require clergy to report suspected child abuse–physical, sexual, or emotional–and therefore breach clergy confidentiality?  This is the law in many states, but is it an unconstitutional intrusion into Church doctrine and practice?
  • Contraceptive medicine serve purposes beyond contraception.  For example, many women experience several pain or bleeding that is incapacitating without artificial hormones.  Must employees pay for these necessary hormones even when their purpose is not contraception?
  • Nearly 50% of women of childbearing age have foregone contraception at various times in their life because of lack of resources.  Are societal sins that cause economic hardship beyond the woman’s control less bad in God’s eyes than finding a way to give free contraception to all women who want it, or are these sins just more hidden and more comfortable for us?

Back to the devil in the details of the Administration’s policy:

  • Although it exempts entities, like churches, synagogues and mosques, where religious rites and services are performed; are not caring for the poor, the ill, the homeless, the hungry, the imprisoned, and those who want to be educated, just as integral to most religions as is participating in worship and ritual?
  • Many hospitals, universities, colleges, and community programs that are considered religiously affiliated are separately incorporated.  Should this distinction make a difference in policy?
  • If insurance premiums are paid by all employers and participants across the country and must these insurance companies include free contraceptive services, does the newest policy really exempt religiously affiliated organizations or is it merely what David Brooks calls, “a polite, and acceptable compromise?”  Aren’t such premiums fungible?

For me, the over-arching questions from our Founding Documents are (1) does the “inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” include contraception, blood transfusions, mental health care, and prevention of child abuse that can be necessary for life, liberty and happines; and (2) under what circumstances, if any, can the State interfere in religious practice and doctrinal integrity?  In other words, how do we hold these two essential rights in the proper balance?  I adamantly want the State to intervene in some situations, but not in others.  I just don’t know yet how to sort it out.

I don’t have answers, but I know the questions aren’t going away.

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