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Duly Noted

Tuesday, Feb 14, 2012, 10:00 am

Contraception and Religious Freedom

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Futurowoman, Creative Commons.

As I predicted, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has rejected the Obama administration's compromise on contraception coverage.

In an attempt to mollify the bishops, the administration offered to let insurance companies cover the cost of free contraception to employees of religious institutions which refused to allow their insurance premiums to go towards contraception.

Remember, we're talking about a compromise that affects institutions that primarily serve the community, like hospitals and universities, not primarily religious institutions like churches. Primarily religious institutions were already exempt.

The bishops have argued, unconvincingly, that requiring institutions to pay for birth control (or have birth control paid for their employees by insurers) violates religious freedom.

Philosopher John Holbo has an excellent post at Crooked Timber arguing that religious freedom does not give institutions the right to simply opt out of provisions of laws they don't like. Fundamentally, religious freedom is about respect for individual conscience. It doesn't give religious institutions the right to usurp the powers of the state.

Furthermore, Holbo argues, one of the goals of the First Amendment is to make sure that state power isn't used to compel religious observance. If the state allows religiously-affiliated employers to impose a de facto $650-a-year "sin tax" on employees--the out-of-pocket cost of a year's supply of birth control pills--that's compelling religious observance on the part of employees.

The bishops have also argued that contraception shouldn't be covered as preventive health care because pregnancy isn't a disease. Merrill Goozner has a good rebuttal to that argument in a post entitled, "Unintended Pregnancy: A Biomarker for Disease and Poverty." Goozner points out that pregnancy isn't a disease, but unintended pregnancy is strongly correlated with negative health and social outcomes for mothers and their children.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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