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Bishops vs. women

Published Feb 15, 2012 9:32 PM

What do 271 U.S. Catholic bishops want to do to nearly 70 million women of childbearing age in the U.S.? Deny them the right to free contraception, which would enable them to control their reproductive capacity and health.

The bishops, through the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the political mouthpiece of the Catholic Church, are trying to do that under the guise of “religious freedom.”

What is wrong with this picture? Everything.

This controversy started in 2010 when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act included coverage for birth control. The USCCB didn’t like that.

Then, in August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a report, backed by scientific research, that free family planning is part of preventive health care for women. The study showed that the consequences of unintended pregnancies are much more costly for women’s health and the well-being of families — and for insurance companies to pay for — when compared with the cost of free contraception.

That enraged the bishops, even though polls show 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lives.

The bishops’ wrath exploded on Jan. 20, when President Barack Obama announced that all religious-affiliated institutions that serve the general population and receive federal and state funding must provide free birth control coverage in their health plans to all employees — though 335,000 churches and houses of worship are exempt. The bishops charged Obama with attacking religious liberty.

But is that a legitimate claim? Hardly. All institutions run by the Catholic Church — 7,000 grammar and high schools, 244 colleges and universities, 600 hospitals and 1,400 long-term health care facilities, and hundreds of charities that help 9 million people annually — employ and serve millions of non-Catholics. Catholic institutions are the largest nonprofit providers in each category. In 2009, one in six people received health care at Catholic hospitals.

On Feb. 10, President Obama announced a compromise to quell the uproar when Republican presidential hopefuls, Tea Partiers, fundamentalist Christians and Jews, and hard-right Republican congresspeople jumped on the USCCB bandwagon. The compromise allows access to contraceptives through insurance companies and is not mandated as part of health plans offered by religious institutions.

But that didn’t satisfy the bishops. The USCCB issued a stinging indictment of the compromise as being “a grave moral concern,” which is “unacceptable and must be corrected.” (New York Times, Feb. 12) Three lawsuits have already been filed against the birth control mandate, and the “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act” has 37 sponsors in the Senate. The act would exempt insurance providers and purchasers, regardless of religious affiliation, from having to cover services that are contrary to “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

USCCB has expanded its war on women to oppose both abortion and family planning.

That’s religious tyranny. Isn’t that just the sort of totalitarianism right-wingers in the U.S. routinely accuse other governments of?

In contrast, 24 religious leaders, representing Protestant, Reform and Conservative Jewish, and Muslim faiths, issued a joint statement from the Religious Institute on Feb. 8 stating, “We respect individuals’ moral agency to make decisions about their sexuality and reproductive health without governmental interference or legal restriction.” And the public policy office of the United Methodist Church, which also runs hospitals and universities, applauded the mandate to cover contraception.

Birth control, family planning services, safe and legal abortion, and free universal health care should be among the guaranteed rights of every woman.

The fight for reproductive justice for all women and support for the struggles of women and families are an integral part of the struggles of the 99% to stop the cutbacks, givebacks and attacks on the workers and oppressed. Unity and solidarity will push back reaction and propel all struggles forward. n