Contraceptive rights debated by Miamians
As political advertisements have taken over media channels, lawns and billboards, Miami University students are reminded that the Nov. 6 presidential election is nigh. One of the issues that has been discussed on the campaign trail is the contraceptive mandate proposed by President Barack Obama's administration, which would require all new private health insurance plans to cover birth control at no cost to the employee.
The contraceptive mandate is part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which was upheld by the Supreme Court June 28.
Miami Comparative Religion Professor John-Charles Duffy said Republicans and Democrats tend to debate the contraceptive mandate in extreme terms in order to sway the votes of the issue's supporters in the upcoming election.
"Conservatives cast this as 'the Obama administration is making an assault on religious freedom,'" Duffy said. "Liberals cast it as 'conservatives are waging a war on women.' It's framing the issue in those inflamed terms for the issue of rallying their respective bases."
Duffy said he noted during the vice presidential debate Vice Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan alluded to the contraceptive mandate.
"He talked about the 'assault on religious freedom,' he called it, that the Obama administration is waging and the examples he cited were the way he felt the administration was trying to take away the religious freedom of Catholic hospitals, Catholic charities, which was very clearly a reference to the contraceptive mandate," Duffy said.
According to Duffy, the contraceptive mandate is not a new concept.
"What some journalists have been pointing out is the fact that mandates like the one that the Obama administration had originally wanted or like the compromise that is now being proposed are already in place in many states and have been supported by Republicans in the past," Duffy said. "Republicans have lined up against the Obama contraceptive mandate because of course, it's Obama, so it became a useful political tool in the election."
The contraceptive mandate does not require houses of worship to offer contraception coverage to their employees, but does require employers who are affiliated with religious institutions such as hospitals or universities to provide coverage to their employees.
Roman Catholic bishops have contended that the contraceptive mandate violates religious freedom because it forces Catholics to provide contraception to others, when contraception is against Catholic Church teaching, according to Duffy.
"Catholics spearheaded [the movement against the contraceptive mandate] but it was framed as an issue of religious freedom so various other kinds of religious voices joined in on that as well, including groups that really didn't have a problem with contraception but who were willing to rally behind what they saw as Catholics' religious freedom," Duffy said.
Senior Colten Kidwell said the contraceptive mandate violates religious freedom.
"I think when you tell a religious organization to provide something that they don't want to provide because they are morally against it I think that's violating religious freedom," Kidwell said.
According to Kidwell, while many Americans believe contraceptives can be important for women's health, religious organizations and institutions should have the freedom to decide whether or not they want to provide contraception.
"Whether or not you would argue that contraceptives are important for women's health really isn't the debate here, because it might very well be," Kidwell said. "But to be forcing religious organizations and institutions to do something that goes against their moral principles is very dangerous territory and it's another example of how the 'Health Care Tax,' as the Supreme Court has called it, or ObamaCare is endangering those freedoms in creating a government that has gotten too big, too controlling and too dominating."
The Obama administration proposed a compromise in March that would allow a patient who is employed by a religious institution such as a Catholic hospital to receive contraception directly from their insurer rather than their employer.
"So it's this way that you are still getting the coverage but you are sort of bypassing the religious employer, so the religious employer can sort of say that their hands are clean, but you still get the coverage, which is crucial from the administration's point of view," Duffy said.
Institutions representing Catholic hospitals favored the compromise, but U.S. Catholic bishops rejected it, according to Duffy.
"One of their arguments, for example, is that Catholics working in the insurance industry are still sort of going to be tainted by contraceptive services," Duffy said. "They argued that the only way that insurance companies are going to be able to provide this service is by raising premiums for everyone. So people who don't believe in contraception will nevertheless be paying for contraception."
Duffy said the reason Catholic bishops have been assertive in opposing the contraceptive mandate is because they want to inform American Catholics about why the Catholic Church does not support the use of contraception.
"I think for the Catholic bishops this has become an occasion to send a message to American Catholics," Duffy said. "American Catholics are notorious for ignoring the Church's ban on birth control ... it's an effort on behalf of the Catholic bishops to reinforce the Church's teachings to a laity that is not convinced that those teachings are all that important."
Associate Professor of English and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies Madelyn Detloff said the debate over reproductive rights can be seen as early as the 1910s when contraception advocate Margaret Sanger was indicted in 1914 for providing information on birth control and family planning to women and men.
Sanger's motivation was to prevent the negative side effects multiple pregnancies can have on women, according to Detloff.
There are still risks associated with pregnancy today, Detloff said.
In 2010, 287,000 women worldwide died due to pregnancy or childbirth complications, according to the World Health Organization.
Detloff said some medical risks for pregnancy in the United States include high blood pressure, diabetes, death, serious back injuries and the inability to treat mood disorders in patients who have been diagnosed with them.
Senior Justine Furbeck supports the contraceptive mandate because it will allow women to have greater access to birth control.
"I think it's a good thing," Furbeck said. "Women's health is an important issue because women want and need access to birth control, not just because they are out there having sex but because birth control helps with different health issues. What somebody chooses to do with their body and their health is their issue. Honestly if someone is sexually active I think they should be using birth control."
Detloff said making contraception more available may lower the abortion rate, as abortion rates tend to be the lowest in countries where contraception is widely available to women.
In addition, Detloff said not every person who is employed by a Catholic hospital or university is a Catholic, and not offering him or her contraceptive coverage may violate their religious freedom because they are being denied coverage based on a doctrine they do not follow.
"On one hand we have a mandate that we need to offer this [contraception] and the other hand we have what turns out to be a mandate that people need to follow one certain ethical line of reasoning," Detloff said.
A person who has access to contraceptive coverage is not necessarily obligated to use it, Detloff said. However, denying a person coverage may prevent those who wish to use contraceptives from having access to them for financial reasons.
Furbeck agreed not providing contraceptive coverage to those employed by religious institutions may violate their religious freedom.
"I don't think [the contraceptive mandate] conflicts with someone's religious freedom to tell a faith-based charity or institution that it needs to cover birth control for its workers even though Catholics believe birth control is a sin, because if you are employing someone that person is not necessarily a Catholic," Furbeck said. "In some ways I think it's an infringement on the religious freedom of your employees to tell them that you are not going to cover birth control because, 'our religion tells us it's bad.'"
According to Kidwell, if an employee wishes to have contraceptive coverage he or she should work for an employer who wishes to offer contraceptive coverage in their healthcare plan or purchase it for himself or herself.
"If I'm not Catholic, and I'm not, if I were an atheist and wanted to buy my contraceptives, then I wouldn't work for a Catholic institution or organization that didn't offer it," Kidwell said. "I would go work somewhere else, because in my belief it's great to use contraceptives. But that's my choice, and it's their choice not to offer it and it's my choice to go work somewhere else."
There is a wide variation of thought on reproductive health issues within feminist thought, however Detloff said she believes most feminists would agree it is up to the woman to decide whether or not she wants to use contraception.
"I think most feminists would say it's the woman herself who gets to make those decisions about her own body and they can be complicated; they can be serious; they can be moral and ethical decisions, and the best person to make those decisions is the person herself," Detloff said.
Furbeck said the Romney campaign has argued that the contraceptive mandate is an attack on religious freedom because they believe they will receive more votes.
"Running against an incumbent means Romney's best strategy lays in devaluing Obama's record in office," Furbeck said. "Thus a beneficial move for women's health turns into a debate over religious freedom."
Kidwell said the Obama campaign is focusing on the contraceptive mandate is sway women voters instead of focusing on issues such as female unemployment.
"I think the Obama campaign has made a conscious decision that the best way to win the female vote is to make this an election about contraceptives and women's health and about abortion and whether you are pro-choice or pro-life and I think these issues are important and it's certainly a debate we need to have but when 5.5 million women are out of work, I think the first thing we need to talk about is how to get them back to work," Kidwell said. "I'm not sure why we want to talk about what's going to be included in their healthcare packages when they don't even have a job to begin with."
Duffy said he believes the question of whether or not people have access to contraception and whether or not religious institutions are able to have religious freedom are both important issues. However, he said there are other important issues the country should focus on.
"This is political theater," Duffy said. "This issue that could have been discussed and has been discussed in the past in calmer ways is being inflamed at a particular moment for the purposes of the 2012 election, and I think it would behoove everyone to be a little bit cynical about this debate for that reason."
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