A half-century after the advent of birth-control pills, and more than a decade after the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined that employers risked gender discrimination if their preventive health and prescription drug plans didn't include contraception, it appears Washington is still willing to compromise the right of women to plan their pregnancies.
The wrangling over rules to implement the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act's mandate to provide free coverage of contraceptive devices threatens to undermine this overdue advance for women and their families. Critics, as heard during a Catholic Red Mass in Tampa on Wednesday, consider it a matter of religious freedom. But it's really about protecting the rights of women who don't subscribe to the religious views of their employer. President Barack Obama should stand firm.
At issue is a so-called "refusal clause" offered by bureaucrats at the Department of Health and Human Services. In deference to the separation of church and state, the administration is proposing allowing churches and religious orders that oppose contraception to be exempted from providing contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans.
But that exemption doesn't go far enough for the Catholic Church, which has mounted a full-court press to try to expand the clause to include more affiliated organizations — be they parochial schools, charities or the vast network of religious-affiliated hospitals. This potentially affects untold thousands of female employees and their families who do not share the religious beliefs of their employer. The campaign surfaced locally Wednesday with comments by Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg during a Tampa Red Mass, an annual religious service for those in the legal profession. Lynch warned that if the administration didn't heed the Catholic Church's demands, the diocese would drop its health care plans altogether and have employees shop for policies on their own.
The White House must not cave in to the church's demands. Retreating on this important advance that allows women and their families to plan and prepare for a pregnancy should be unthinkable. And it should raise real questions about whether the administration is willing to make excessive compromises on other medical procedures that other religious groups may oppose. Eight of the 28 states that require insurance plans to cover contraception if they cover other prescription drugs do not include a religious exemption. And numerous studies show that the majority of Americans support access to birth control.
The strongest opposition to the bishops' push comes from Catholics for Choice, a nearly 40-year-old organization, whose advocacy has shined a light on the church leaders' hypocrisy. The group points to research from the respected Guttmacher Institute showing that 98 percent of sexually experienced Catholic women have used contraception other than natural family planning, compared to 99 percent of all sexually experienced women. Catholic bishops, the group argues, are trying to get the government to enforce a religious doctrine where the church has been unsuccessful, flying in the face of individual religious freedom.
Nothing in the federal health care law requires women to use contraception — only that this basic medical service be accessible through health care plans. And religious groups have every right to encourage members to abstain from using contraception or any other procedure. But seeking help toward that goal from government shouldn't be an option in a country founded on individual freedoms.