February 4, 2012


There is a controversy brewing at the state and federal level about church-owned enterprise employees and health insurance. What is it all about?

Pittsburgh bishop David Zubik raised quite a ruckus when he stated that by requiring employers and insurers to cover contraception and other FDA-approved reproductive health benefits without an additional co-pay, "the Obama administration [is telling] the Catholics of the United States, 'To Hell with you!'"

Why is a senior official of the Catholic Church declaring open war with the current US President? Well, it’s about morality, which means it’s about money. Isn’t everything?

There are some rules that are the same for business and church organizations, and some that are not. The trend is to apply more and more of the same rules to both kinds of organizations. For example, it doesn’t matter if you are a church or Exxon, you still have to obey the same fire codes, workplace safety rules and guidelines for employment discrimination, at least in theory.  It has long been the rule that if a business provides health insurance coverage for some of its employees, it has to offer it to all, on an equal footing. This means that if the executives and managers have a really great heath plan, it is illegal for them to scrimp and buy a really cheap and crappy health plan for their employees. There are some things that senior management is able to legally give itself and not share with their employees, but in general what’s fair is also legal.

Bishops, priests, ministers, etc. of many churches have pretty good health plans that cover just about everything. For years, many churches have avoided having to buy health insurance for their clerical and administrative staffs, because for one, as a non-profit entity, adding the burden of health insurance reduced the efficiency with which donated funds were applied to specific issues or causes. If you give $100 to feed hungry people, you don’t want $80 to be spent on admin costs and only $20 get to those in need.  Of course, denying your employees health benefits and thereby making them people in need rather defeats the positive return on this policy.  The Catholic Church has always been in the forefront of church privilege - insisting on the right of church organizations to flaunt the rules every other employer must abide.

Another reason they were excused from this has to do with fair coverage. In most states, if you offer health insurance, you have to pay out for legitimate medical procedures. A legitimate medical procedure usually means that the insurance adjuster, a doctor and the patient have agreed that this is legitimate. The employer who is paying for the coverage isn’t consulted. Recently, in many states, health insurance providers were required to pay for legally prescribed medicines, including birth control. Very recently, this can also include medicines which are taken to interfere with the implantation of a fertilized egg on the placenta or even to cause the miscarriage of an embryo, if any.

What the current administration has ruled is that church organizations, such as hospitals, charities, and other businesses should be held to the same standards of employer conduct as any other for-profit business with respect to providing insurance for employees. Since by some estimates, 98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some time during their lives, it is a safe bet then that the health insurance that the Catholic Church is paying for would end up paying some or all of the cost of contraceptives for the thousands of women employed by them. These men are mad about paying for something they don’t think women should do.

It’s a moral issue then.  Well, except that it isn’t. It is amazing how morality and money are so closely linked. If it were somehow cheaper for the churches to provide the coverage than to deny coverage, you can bet there would be a good, solid moral reason why they must provide it - like the fact that their Savior, a pioneer in egalitarianism,  would never have gotten coverage for himself that was denied to anyone else.

What this really is about is choice. As mentioned above, something like 98% of Catholic Women use birth control for family planning. Obviously, having the ability to get birth control through medical insurance isn’t the same thing as getting birth control. If you sincerely believe that birth control is bad, then convince people by rational argument that they should not do this. Those whom you convince will not. Those who disagree may disobey you, but isn’t that really up to them? That is the whole point of free will, right?  What the new rules do is give people the choice to make their own decisions, and provide them with more options in managing their health and their bodies.

Despite a considerable amount of authoritative discourse to the contrary, most churches are not about giving people rights or choices, they are about constraining people to only a limited choice between options they consider to be acceptable. The history of the Catholic Church in particular has been largely about opposing choice on just about everything and being dragged kicking and screaming by the state and by its own faith community to adopt reforms that make choice possible. If you doubt this, look up the Catholic Church's history on divorce, democracy, science, and human rights. Criticisms about church intransigence and unwillingness to follow the will of the faithful were among the chief reasons for the Protestant Reformation.

And what about the people who are employed by churches who are not members of that religion? Just because a person holds the position of administrative assistant to a manager of a Catholic charity does not mean that you are yourself Catholic. Why should such a person be prevented from having the choices they would have if they fulfilled the same position for Costco or Exxon or Ford Motor Company?

And in this world of runaway population, with our resources strained to the limit to provide for seven billion human beings, why is contraception a bad thing? Why should women be prevented from preventing unwanted pregnancies - prevented from bringing unwanted children they cannot care for? This is, or should be, surely to God, a personal choice.

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