There's a chant that is familiar to anyone who has ever attended a reproductive rights rally -- "Not the church, not the state; Women should decide their fate!" Usually this rallying cry is in defense of a woman's right to choose abortion. Today this chant takes on new relevance when it comes to birth control. On Jan. 20, the Obama Administration issued a decision to include contraceptives as part of the package of women's preventive health services in the Affordable Care Act (ACA, the 2010 health reform law). Beginning in August 2012, all of the services in this package will be available in new insurance plans without any out-of-pocket costs to women. In a country where half of all pregnancies are unplanned and the cost of birth control is high, this decision is an important step in promoting women's health. The rule specifically exempts pervasively religious institutions like certain houses of worship from offering their employees birth control coverage as part of their health insurance.
This exemption did not go far enough for the Catholic Church and some other religious groups who had been lobbying hard to broaden that exemption to include religious schools, organizations and service providers. They insist that to cover their employees' need for contraceptive services would violate their religious beliefs -- the beliefs of the employers, not the employees. After all, among the hundreds of thousands of employees of religiously affiliated universities, hospitals, social service programs, etc., there are many who belong to a different faith group or -- regardless of their affiliation -- may hold beliefs that differ from their bosses. We are not just talking about direct employees by the way. Families of workers are likely to be covered under an insurance policy, too.
Statistics show that most insurance plans already cover birth control and 28 states require it. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, in announcing the Administration's decision, explained that birth control is the most commonly taken drug in the U.S. by young and middle-aged women -- and that holds true of women across the religious spectrum. Ninety-eight percent of all American women, Catholic and otherwise, report using birth control during their lifetime.
The lobbying by the Catholic bishops has been widely publicized. What hasn't gotten as much attention is that many faith-based groups, including the National Council of Jewish Women, which I lead, weighed in on the other side. NCJW and our colleagues in the faith community understand that this is an issue of religious liberty -- although there are differing religious views on the use of contraception, it should be up to women to decide on whether and when to use contraception based on their own beliefs and needs.
On this most-personal decision, no woman should be forced to abide by the religious views of her bosses at work or those of her insured spouse's employer. Take a look at any religiously affiliated college, hospital or social service agency and you're likely to find that the religious affiliations of the nurses, social workers, van drivers, cafeteria workers, professors and other employees are quite diverse and not necessarily the same as their employers.
"Not the church, not the state" -- these are the individuals who should "decide their fate" consistent with their beliefs, consciences and health needs. The religious liberty of all of us should be respected.