Those Filthy Women: The Catholic Church’s Objections to the HHS Rule on Contraceptive Care

April 8, 2013

As you probably know, back in August 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a proposed rule requiring employers to offer employees health insurance that provides preventive health care services. Based upon advice from the scientific and medical communities, these services include contraceptive care. Based upon advice from God, the Catholic Church has been engaged in an all-out war to kill the proposed rule.
There are several dozen lawsuits that are pending against HHS’s proposed rule. So far, the lower courts are divided on several key questions, such as whether for-profit businesses can raise a religious objection to the rule and whether the rule imposes a substantial burden on anyone’s religious beliefs. The “burden” in question is the disgust some employer’s representative (director, officer, owner) feels when an employee obtains contraception through the employer’s health plan. Almost surely, the Supreme Court will have to resolve these issues. This is shaping up to become one of the most important First Amendment controversies of the last few decades, as it will determine the extent to which religious objections can trump public policy.
Meanwhile, while this litigation is proceeding, HHS has gone out of its way to accommodate the concerns of religious groups like the Catholic Church, even offering nonprofit organizations affiliated with the Church the option of not having to pay for the insurance coverage themselves, to the extent it involves contraceptive care. Comments are due today on HHS’s last set of proposed modifications. CFI has submitted comments.  Without repeating what we say in our formal comments, suffice it to say that HHS has done more than what is necessary to accommodate religious organizations, but it has been a futile effort.
Note that the Church is not limiting its objections to the HHS rule to a situation where a Church-affiliated nonprofit pays for the contraceptive coverage. It also is not limiting its objections to a situation where a for-profit business with a religious owner opposed to contraception pays for the contraceptive coverage. No, it objects even if, as proposed by HHS, the employee obtains coverage from the insurer without the employer having to contribute a dime. The Church objects because the mere possibility that a Catholic boss might be indirectly connected, via employment, to a woman who chooses to use contraception is allegedly sufficient to strip Catholics of their religious freedom. The conscience of a Catholic administrator of a hospital will be soiled if a female staffer receives contraception; the soul of Catholic owner of a for-profit company that makes widgets will be contaminated if a female employee receives contraception.
The Catholic Church is operating with a taboo mentality. It is not objecting to Catholics being compelled to do anything—it could not, because Catholics are not being compelled to do anything. It is objecting because it does not want Catholics to be associated with women who take control of their reproductive process.
All the Abrahamic religions have treated women as inferior beings. Moreover, the Bible and the Qur’an, as well as the ancillary traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have all regarded women as somehow unclean. There are dozens of rules about how men should avoid contact with women under various circumstances and how women should avoid contact with various holy objects. These rules often relate to women’s bodily functions. For example, one is not supposed to come into contact with anything on which a menstruating woman has been sitting, Lev. 15: 22-23, and in some Islamic traditions menstruating women are not allowed to enter a mosque. Those filthy women could contaminate pure, righteous men.
Seems to me a similar mindset is at work in the pronouncements of the male celibate bishops who are leading the attack on HHS’s rule.  HHS isn’t forcing the bishops or their followers to do a damn thing. But they simply can’t abide the thought that their purity might be ruined through some sort of remote contact with a woman who is taking a drug that, you know, affects her weird nasty parts.
The bishops claim they have the high moral ground. What a cruel joke. Their prohibitions are relics from the early stages—the childhood— of human civilization. We should not allow their barbaric taboos to influence public policy.