What does back-to-school season have to do with the “contraception rule” from the White House? The very existence of some schools is threatened, now that the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate for contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs has gone into effect.
Hadley Heath, a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum, points to Pius X High School in Lincoln, Neb., which has sued the federal government. The school’s administrators are “arguing that Pius X would be forced to choose between compliance and shutting its doors entirely,” says Heath. “The Obama administration shouldn’t be in the business of reducing choices for the 5-plus million students who are currently attending religious K–12 schools.”
Why would the school ever have to shut down? Because of the punitive fines that are to be levied for non-compliance with the controversial mandate. If the government decides to collect those fines, choosing conscience over Caesar’s edict would prove crippling to the likes of Pius X in dioceses across the country.
Focusing on children is one of the ways IWF is hoping to reframe the debate over the dangerous implications of the president’s health-care law. As the HHS mandate went into effect on August 1, IWF released an “infographic” illustrating exactly what’s wrong with this particular “preventive services” regulation, making the case that it “comes with severe consequences to our liberty, our health care, and our pocketbooks.” The infographic delineates the choices the president’s health-care plan is forcing on schools, colleges, hospitals, and charities, and the financial consequences of non-compliance.
Many of the schools Heath is concerned about are now facing a decision. As she puts it, “Do we violate the tenets of our faith and offer health insurance that covers sterilization and contraception, or do we pay a huge fine and shift resources away from our students, teachers, and educational programming? We shouldn’t be asking these schools to make this choice.”
Heath had the kids of Pius X on her mind as New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, was railing against a “maleogarchy” at an August 1 Senate press conference celebrating the mandate. “This mandate is nothing to celebrate,” says Heath, who is 24, single, and Protestant, and who does not exactly look like part of the maleogarchy. “We shouldn’t celebrate government running over the rights of a group of people. We shouldn’t celebrate that, to live in accordance with their faith, many schools, hospitals, and charities will have to reduce their services to the needy in our society in order to pay huge fines. It may seem like a benefit to get birth control at ‘no cost,’ but in fact the cost is very great. Can you imagine being rushed to your local hospital in the midst of an emergency, only to find out they can’t treat you because that wing of the hospital was shut down to finance the HHS mandate penalties?”
That’s a different take on the issue from the one we have mostly been hearing. Usually the Catholic Church is being accused of wanting to impose its morality on everyone, of infringing on others’ freedom. Indeed, at a recent forum celebrating the new regulation, Democratic consultant Karen Finney accused the mandate’s critics of misogyny, pointing in contrast to a president who “gets it that all these issues for women as human beings are all-encompassing. I need you to think about me as a human being: as a person who works, as a person who has a family, as a person who has health-care needs, not just these in these compartments, because that’s what we do as women. . . . I’m dealing with that, in this economy, and you’re telling me you’re going to take away my birth control? What? That’s what we want to be dealing with.”
But to paint that picture is to miss something fundamental: freedom. It is precisely the right not to have to compartmentalize faith into a worship service on the weekend that has brought together in opposition to the mandate the likes of the Catholic University of America, the evangelical Wheaton College, and even small businesses like the Seneca Hardwood Lumber Co. in Cranberry, Pa. — which happens to be run by Catholics who believe what their Church teaches and want to live with integrity. And the realities of our current economy make it all the more perplexing that the White House would insist that the primary issue of the hour is access to contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs — that this is a matter so urgent as to require putting into jeopardy entities run by religious institutions or individuals.
At the same Center for American Progress Action Fund forum at which Finney spoke, feminist mandate hero Sandra Fluke insisted that the mandate is needed for the sake of women’s health. But, as Heath points out, “Without a mandate, many employers who oppose birth control for religious reasons are happy to select an insurance plan that covers the same drugs for women who require them for non-contraceptive use.” In fact, the case that Fluke most often cites — about an anonymous friend at Georgetown Law who had cysts — seemed to involve bureaucratic confusion, not religious conviction. It’s a problem that can be fixed without this mandate. Religious freedom is actually not about forcing people to suffer or refusing to treat medical conditions.
The HHS mandate, Heath says, “clearly injects government into a debate about deeply personal moral convictions. We believe that debate is best had in civil society where good people with good intentions are free to come to different conclusions. In the private market, people of various religions and worldviews work together every day to exchange goods and services and create wealth. We see this as a beautiful thing.”
“I’m not Catholic, and I have no moral issue with birth control,” Heath tells me. “But there are plenty of women, like me, who see this as government going too far here and injecting itself into a debate that’s better had among individuals and groups in society. Look at the division this has caused.”
As Heath tellingly puts it, “If the government asks Catholics to violate their conscience today, who could it be tomorrow?”
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.