Opinions & Commentary

Unhealthy politics

Thank you, bishops of the Catholic Church.

Thank you, Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel.

Thank you, Mitt Romney, John Boehner and the rest of the politicians puffing themselves blue with hyperbolic talk about President Barack Obama’s attack on religion.

Together, you have set forth a powerful argument for a universal health care program that covers all Americans, young and old, working and non-working.

You have done so with your opposition to the Obama administration for insisting that contraception be covered by employee health insurance offered by hospitals, universities and social services agencies that are religious in affiliation but nonsectarian in whom they serve.

The ruling comes as part of the Affordable Care Act, which aims to make sure that all insurance policies provide basic coverage, including such preventive care as mammograms, colonoscopies and immunizations. It’s no leap to include contraceptives under preventive care, given the alternative of unwanted pregnancy. The vast majority of Americans – including 98 percent of Catholic women, according to the Guttmacher Institute – use contraceptives at some point in their lives.

But opponents of the contraception mandate do have a case to make under the First Amendment, regardless of the popularity of the pill and other birth control measures. The government, in effect, is forcing religious institutions to foot the bill for something that violates their faith.

In general, we feel the government should tread very lightly when it comes to religion. We agreed, for example, when the Supreme Court applied “ministerial exception” to shield religious institutions from certain employment discrimination suits. In that case, the court found it unconstitutional for the government to intrude on hiring decisions that bear on the religious mission of a church or synagogue.

The contraception case, though, is much murkier. First, it does not apply to institutions whose missions are strictly religious, but rather to those that serve the public at large and engage employees of many faiths. Second, the public has a direct stake in such institutions as they often benefit from taxpayer funds: Medicare and Medicaid for hospitals; tuition aid and research grants for universities. And, like all nonprofits and religious groups, they enjoy tax-exempt status.

But if health insurance weren’t so entwined with employment, we wouldn’t be having this First Amendment argument. In America, we’ve come to think employee-provided health insurance is the natural way. In much of the world, the government oversees health insurance, just as it does here for millions of seniors. But while few question public education, advocates of government health care risk are being branded as socialists.

Under the health reform act, most working people still will be dependent on their employers for affordable insurance. Even under the most favorable economic circumstances, few have the luxury of changing jobs in order to get a better plan.

Obama last week managed to placate some critics by calling on insurance companies to offer birth control coverage independent of employers who have religious objections. The National Council of Bishops sees compromise as simply finessing the payment system, while still leaving religious employers a party to what they consider the immoral use of birth control. We respect the sincerity of their beliefs. We hope that should looming budget battles shred the social safety net, religious leaders mount an equally fervent fight on behalf of those already born.

Considering that an overwhelming majority of Americans have at some point used birth control, we suspect that political – not moral – concerns are fanning this furor over contraception.

Just as with the phony claims about death panels several years back, Republican grandstanding continues to sidetrack any serious debate about health reform.

Meanwhile, our medical bills soar and our life expectancy rates fall further behind much of the developed world.

The question is: How sick must are system get before America demands a cure?


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