Women’s advocates in Washington found their jaws hitting the floor last week when a Congressional oversight committee convened a panel of experts to discuss freedom of religion and women’s reproductive health care. The panel consisted only of men. Taking turns testifying were a Roman Catholic bishop, a Lutheran minister, a rabbi, a philosophy professor and an ethics professor. To a man, they objected to the federal government’s decision that all women insured through an employer’s group health policy be able to receive contraception and other reproductive health services under the impending health care reform law. They argued that Constitutional guarantees ensuring the separation of church and state allowed them to reject federal law when it violated their conscience or the dictates of their faith.
Many faiths hold beliefs about the conception and bearing of children. The public controversy now underway would never occur in many places in the modern world. Around the world, health care is provided directly to the patient via a national health service or single payor system. In the US, about two-thirds of the under 65 population still receive health care through their employer. Religious institutions are not bound by federal rules regarding health insurance when it comes to employees connected to the operation of churches, synagogues, houses of worship, or similar activities. However, when the religious institution is functioning in its capacity as the employer of an educational institution, such as a college or university, or a health care provider, like a hospital or medical center, the current state of the law is that they are subject to the same federal regulations as any other employer. In this instance, the law will require employers to provide reproductive health care, including contraception, to all insured employees.
Some members of Congress are making common cause with religious leaders to put pressure on the Administration’s decision. It is certainly no secret that congressional hearings are not required to be fair, or to have experts on both sides of an issue, or an equal number of Republicans or Democrats. The Chairman of a committee can convene a hearing on the topic of his or her choice, when s/he pleases, and invite whomever s/he wishes. What upset so many people about this hearing is that birth control is so inherently tied to the uniquely feminine capacity for childbirth, which just doesn’t affect men in the same way. Further, conception cannot be viewed exclusively through a religious lens. There is nothing that impacts the security, health and well-being of a woman, and her children, so much as her fertility. Consider some relevant facts:
- Women have had and continue to have greater rates of poverty than men;
- Women are poorer than men no matter their racial or ethnic group;
- Women spend more of their time in unpaid caregiving than men do;
- Poverty rates between men and women increase during the childbearing years and in old age;
- Pregnancy, childbirth and childrearing negatively impact women’s educational and employment opportunities;
- Women are more likely to bear the costs of childrearing than men;
- A woman’s lifetime earnings will decrease in proportion to the number of children she has.
The ability to control how many children she mothers and when they are born are certainly private matters with public health implications. Fertility may determine a woman’s educational achievement and employment security, especially in a country where time off for childbirth or pre- or post-natal medical care is a matter of employer discretion. It will affect her health and that of her children. In some cases, fertility can rise to a matter of life and death, the mother’s or her child’s. In every case, the birth of a child is accompanied by numerous and varied obligations, commitments, and sacrifices. To arbitrarily deny a female employee access to basic health care, such as contraception, based upon the religious affiliation of her employer, is gender discrimination. Adherence to one’s faith is expressed by living in accord with those precepts and conducting one’s self as one chooses to do. Imposing those precepts on others, through the workplace or other patently non-religious association, is something altogether different.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington