Let them choose

Much in the news lately is Obama’s decision to require Catholic-affiliated institutions like colleges and hospitals to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraceptive services.

Crucially, not everyone employed by a Catholic university or hospital, be it a graduate student doing TA work, or a nurse, is required to be Catholic, hence the Adminstration’s decision to apply its new law to these institutions.

If these institutions, like Catholic churches, were granted an exemption from the law, the issue would arise of non-Catholic employees needing health services like contraception, but being unable to afford them out of pocket. In my view, this amounts to an employer dictating moral behavior to its employees by limiting their choices.

For churches this is somewhat understandable, since employees are supposed to be Catholic, and so should, in principle at least, never even contemplate taking advantage of contraceptive health services. (In practice, most Catholic women are thought to have used contraception at one time or another.)

In the light of this argument, it is a little ironic that leaders of the Catholic institutions falling under the new law are claiming that it limits their freedom, rather than the freedom of those in their employ. But how exactly do they come to this conclusion? They are certainly not being limited in their personal practice of religion, nor are they being required to use contraception themselves. They’re simply being asked to allow their non-Catholic employees to exercise their right to religious freedom.

This debate highlights what is, to me anyway, the rather blurred nature of Catholic-affiliated institutions. In many cases, it’s not clear exactly how deep the involvement of Catholicism really goes. For instance, I was looking at the website of Notre Dame, a Catholic College, which is known as one of the more intensely religious private colleges. But even there, very little participation in religious activities is imposed on students (two theology classes are required). The imposition of religiously-based restrictions on the health care choices of people working at such institutions seems like a massive overreach.

Ultimately, if a religious organization employs people of a different religious tradition (or none at all), it seems to me that it should be up to the employees to make their own moral decisions regarding health services. And such decisions can only be made if they have choices available to them. So, let them choose.

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UPDATE: Linda Greenhouse at the New York Times has a similar take on this issue, and she has more of the relevant legal details.

UPDATE 2: Obama appears to have made quite a sensible compromise on this issue. The law now requires insurance companies to offer contraceptive services to employees if their employer refuses, on religious grounds, to pay for such insurance itself.

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