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US bishops' contraception conundrum

  • 29 March 2012

To Australians it may seem strange that one of the most passionately fought issues in current United States politics has to do with contraception. It has divided Republicans from Democrats and set the Catholic Church against the Government. The issues raised in the debate are central to the relations between church and state, and also to the ways in which Christians deal with a less than perfect world.

The health department believes contraception is a health issue, and that its costs should be met through insurance. The majority of American women agree. But in a nation where medical insurance is private, the United States bishops were concerned that the Catholic Church and its agencies should not be forced to provide or pay for services that it believes to be unethical. It saw this as a breach of religious freedom.

In January the health department issued a draft mandate that to its mind resolved the tension between its responsibility for health and the demands of religious freedom. It ruled that all insurance policies should include access to contraception. It exempted church agencies that served the religious needs of their co-religionists from this obligation. But church agencies that provided public services, such as education or medical care, would be obliged to include contraception in their employees' insurance cover.

To Catholics with any sense of history the guiding principles behind this directive were unacceptable. It imposed a definition of church in which the outreach of charity was quarantined from the so-called core aspects of faith as prayer and worship. Furthermore, it made the state the judge of what is religious. Finally, it asked church agencies to pay for services that the Catholic Church regarded as morally unacceptable.

The Catholic bishops won considerable support in opposing the mandate.

In February the health department proposed a compromise which did not touch on principle, but meant Catholic agencies would not pay directly for contraceptive services. It proposed that insurance companies should provide contraceptive cover gratis to those who wanted it. How this was to be done was not specified. Nor was it clear how the many Catholic agencies that had established their own insurance funds could avoid direct involvement.

Although some Catholic organisations welcomed this compromise,