Rarely have I felt so torn about an issue as I do in this current debate on contraceptive coverage in the health care law. On the one hand, I have never understood the official church position on contraception, and apparently, neither have 98 percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age who use it. It always struck me as something out of the Dark Ages.
On the other hand, I believe in religious freedom. I don't think anyone should be forced by anyone to do something that violates his or her conscience.
If you haven't been following the news, here is the nub of the story: Under a ruling from the Department of Health and Human Services, based on the new health care law, employers must provide contraceptive coverage in employee health care plans without a co-pay -- unless they have a "religious exemption."
"Religious exemptions" can be granted to institutions that employ and serve mainly those of their own religious tradition. So exempt Catholic institutions would include the USCCB, diocesan agencies, religious orders (they need contraception?), Catholic parishes and parish schools.
Those not exempt are institutions that serve and employ large numbers of non-Catholics, such as hospitals, large universities and probably Catholic Charities, because it is incorporated separately. Some of these institutions get government funding for various programs.
The Catholic bishops think this religious exemption is too narrow. They also regard some forms of contraception like the "morning-after pill" as abortifacients. So the bishops, speaking in the name of these institutions, say they cannot in conscience go along with this. They say they will practice civil disobedience.
I don't agree with the bishops' stance on this, but they have a right to believe what they believe. So I am left wondering about the liberty question: Does the government have the right to tell religious institutions to do something that violates their consciences? And almost as I say this, I ask: Do "institutions" have a "right to conscience"? Or is that strictly for individuals? I've never heard that discussed. Of course, individuals run institutions, but how does that work if consciences are in any kind of conflict?
And what if that institution receives tax dollars of any kind? Does that require them to accept a public mandate?
And what about the consciences of the employees? The ones who believe they have a right to contraceptive coverage with no co-pay? Are their consciences being thwarted?
On the other hand, one little secret that has come out since this controversy erupted is this: Many of these institutions already include contraceptive coverage in their employee health care plans now. So, in those cases, how did conscience come into play for them -- if at all?
Then, there's this question: Institutions would have to purchase contraceptive coverage as part of a health insurance package, but no one forces anyone to use it. So does the "conscience question" arise with purchase of a plan or only its use? Or both? Most women, Catholic or not, have no problem using it. And no doubt most would welcome having it as part of their health care plan without a co-pay.
I have also been looking for an analogy that makes sense, and Chris Matthews, who seems to be as torn as I am, named one recently. Could the government force a Quaker college to have ROTC on campus? I rather doubt it. Another came to mind: Can the government tell a Christian Science college that they have to have health insurance at all? Again, I doubt it.
I hope the Obama administration, which clearly underestimated the uproar and is desperately trying to muddle through the controversy, finds a way around this issue that satisfies both sides. It won't be easy.
The real solution? Single-payer health care. Then there is no employer in the middle; it's strictly the decision -- and the conscience -- of the individual.