Birth Control and Why the Catholic Church Needs to Inform Its Own Conscience

As a church, we need to re-examine the ways we are supporting (or failing to support) women and men who are struggling with sexuality, the economy, and the difficult decisions involved in responsible parenting.
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I am the product of 14 years of Catholic school and am a practicing Catholic, actively involved in the church all of my life. As a woman with a career in politics and women's leadership, I have quietly worked within the church to make change and have cautiously offered my voice only when I felt it was essential. But, I can be quiet no longer.

Recently, the Catholic leadership came out in opposition to the mandate in our new healthcare law that all health insurance providers offer coverage for prescribed birth control, even for employees in some Catholic Institutions. But, let's be clear about what the real issue is here. It is not about government controls, and it is not about infringement of our religious beliefs. It is about a church that has lost touch with reality. The leadership of the Catholic Church either is ignoring or is unaware of the disconnect between Catholic teaching and Catholic reality.

First, there is an important yet often overlooked reality about Catholic moral teaching: it mandates that Catholics make decisions with an "informed conscience." This means that we must educate ourselves about the issues so that we understand Catholic social teaching and make decisions based on reflection, prayer, and counsel. Moreover, under Catholic teaching, our decisions about issues like birth control are ultimately our own and should be considered with humanae vitae in mind.

As Catholics we are also called to be responsible parents. Responsible parenting means making decisions about whether we are equipped to be good parents and to provide for our children -- which, for many of us in today's economy, can be a challenging decision. Neither the "informed conscience" nor responsible parenting can be taken lightly. Both are important tenets of our faith that many people do not understand -- even, apparently, our bishops.

Second, there is a practical reality. Just because an option is there, does not mean we have to take it. If an informed Catholic woman does not believe that she should be taking birth control, she shouldn't and doesn't have to. But that does not mean the option should be unavailable to others. To further illustrate the point, the Catholic Church has established policy (referred to as "indirect or remote cooperation") to address precisely this sort of issue. This allows Catholics to indirectly provide support to activities that diverge from Catholic social teaching -- such as paying taxes that fund wars or the death penalty. If we are not directly contributing, it is acceptable under Catholic doctrine. And in this instance, it's the insurance companies who pay for the contraceptives, not the universities or the hospitals.

Third, there is a statistical reality showing why this rule makes sense. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 79.5% of people aged 18 to 24 have had sexual intercourse, and, of those, 2.2% become pregnant. While Catholic authorities would say that unmarried young adults should not be sexually active to begin with, this position ignores reality and serves only to isolate young people -- dismissing the issue as someone else's problem.

But Catholic students are no different from the broader population. In 2009, the Boston College Undergraduate Government held a vote on whether the university should offer more sexual health services, including STI testing, condoms, and prescription birth control. The vote saw a record turnout, and an overwhelming 89% of students supported making these services available. The truth is in these numbers.

Fourth, there is a face to the reality. My cousin was a junior at Fordham University on a full scholarship when she became unexpectedly pregnant two and half years ago. She had been unable to get birth control from Fordham health services -- no university doctor would prescribe birth control, and she could not afford to pay for an out-of-network doctor. One failed condom later, she was pregnant.

My cousin chose to keep the baby, despite her knowledge that six of her other classmates had undergone abortions that year. Upon reporting her pregnancy to the administration, however, they made it clear that she was no longer welcome in student housing. Once she was no longer living in the dorms, her housing scholarship was revoked. Faced with paying New York City rent, she was a 20-year-old student living by her beliefs without a financial safety net.

Against all odds, living on food stamps, and without any support from the University, she managed to graduate and is now teaching theology at a Catholic high school.

Fordham is no different from other Catholic and Jesuit Universities around the country. Three years ago, as a hopeful adoptive parent, I called more than 15 major Catholic universities trying to find an office that provided support for pregnant students. Much to my dismay, I learned that these institutions no longer provide such services to students. Worse still, none of the university administrators was able to identify either a counselor or a healthcare professional who worked with pregnant students on campus.

As a church, Catholics need to focus energy on serving those who are making hard decisions -- like my cousin -- to keep a baby and stand by her beliefs. But we also need to re-examine the ways we are supporting (or failing to support) women and men who are struggling with sexuality, the economy, and the difficult decisions involved in responsible parenting. Pointing fingers at a governmental action designed to provide options to people facing tough choices is not the answer. On issues such as this, the Catholic Church needs to inform its own conscience and allow its members to do the same.

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