Competing moral interests in the contraception mandate controversy

You may have heard about the distinct lack of women's voices at last week's House committee hearing on the contraception mandate, in particular the case of one woman who was denied an opportunity to testify. That woman, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, got a second chance to speak at a Democrating committee hearing yesterday and was finally able to share her story (H/T Faith in Public Life for the news).

To recap, during last week's hearing Bishop William Lori based his testimony on a hypothetical comparison of a kosher deli being asked to serve pork (which, like nearly all other hypothetical comparisons that people have used to argue against the mandate, in no way reflects the realities of human reproduction). When asked about women who use birth control pills for reasons unrelated to preventing pregnancy, Lori said the church deserves credit for understanding the difference and only has a moral opposition to artificial birth control, not to other medical uses of the pill.

In other words, despite all the complaints you're hearing from church leaders on how being mandated to provide contraception coverage is a violation of their conscience, they actually are willing to provide contraception coverage to employees. The only caveat is that they want to be able to determine when said coverage is and is not morally acceptable. The burden of proof is therefore on the employee, before they can receive coverage, to show that they're prescription meets the moral criteria of their employer.

Got all that? Now take a few minutes to watch the video of Sandra Fluke's testimony. She doesn't talk about what it might be like for a Catholic who really wants a ham sandwich to wander into a kosher deli, but what it was like for a real human being, a student at a Catholic university, to have to prove that her prescription for contraception wasn't going to be used to prevent pregnancy. And despite having a doctor's note, that student was denied coverage. And since she couldn't afford the prescription on her own, she suffered a painful illness and surgery, which may in the future prevent her from being able to conceive a child.

The church may argue that this case was an exception, and that most women wouldn't be denied coverage for what their employer may deem a legitimate use of contraception. But for a church that values the dignity of the human person as one of its primary beliefs, is this type of policy really honoring the dignity of women?

It is one thing for the church to say it wants to deny non-Catholic employees coverage of something the church deems immoral. But that also means putting an excessive burden on employees who may be faithful Catholics, who choose to work for a religious institution (and as a result, may be making less money than they would elsewhere), and who simply need a medication prescribed by their doctor for health reasons. And as Fluke's example shows, it endangers the health of women and may even result in a woman being unable to have children, a serious concern for a church that so highly values the creation of human life.

Maybe there's a way to ensure that employees can get valid prescriptions without violating their dignity or the church's position on contraception. Or maybe we can just accept the mandate and trust those employees who have chosen to work for a Catholic institution and to further its mission to follow their own conscience.

Related reading:
On the contraception mandate: Can the bishops speak credibly about a women's health issue?

About the author

Scott Alessi

Scott Alessi is a former editor at U.S. Catholic.