Catholic Women And Contraception: It's Beyond Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Last week the Institute of Medicine (IOM) announced its recommendation that comprehensive contraceptive methods be included as a preventive benefit. This means that, if the federal government agrees with the proposal, these services will be provided at no extra cost to women. It was a victory for all women, but especially poor women and those hit by the tough economic climate, because it would leave the decision to utilize family planning up to a woman's conscience, rather than on her ability to afford a co-pay. A group of 19 progressive Catholic organizations, including Catholics for Choice, celebrated this news and sent a letter asking Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, to implement the IOM's recommendations.

Not everyone is celebrating, however. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is up in arms about the news and has said, "The IOM missed an opportunity to promote better health care for women that is life-affirming and truly compassionate." In addition, the USCCB has been actively lobbying to allow some entities to opt out of this no-cost coverage for family planning by seeking to create burdensome conscience clause provisions.

Are we talking about the same report?

Sadly, we are, but the progressive Catholic organizations appear to have a better understanding of Catholic teachings than the bishops. Citing the Catholic social justice tradition, the organizations requested that Secretary Sebelius reject this demand from the U.S. bishops and not "impose burdensome conscience clauses which seek to limit and indeed eliminate access, and dishonor the conscience of those seeking services."

The timing of the letter is particularly opportune because July 25 is the 43rd anniversary of when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae. This encyclical, subtitled "On the regulation of birth," reaffirmed the Vatican's stance against the use of artificial contraception. The ensuing split between the hierarchy's instruction and the practice of the faithful, told in the Catholics for Choice publication Truth & Consequence: A Look Behind the Vatican's Ban on Contraception, reveals much about the hierarchy's long-standing obsession with contraception.

The divide between the views of the faithful and those of the Catholic hierarchy has a long history. The bishops' rejection of the IOM report is just one more example of the Catholic hierarchy's denial problem when it comes to family planning issues. In 1968, Humanae Vitae banned modern contraceptive methods for Catholics. Catholic women of that era had already embraced contraception, however: At that time, around 44 percent of Catholic women who were of childbearing age and attended church regularly were using contraception not sanctioned by the Vatican. Now, surveys show that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used one of these family planning methods.

The hierarchy's relationship with the faithful is just like any relationship -- refusing to deal with a subject drives the different parties apart. Since Humanae Vitae, Catholics have increasingly felt that the hierarchy did not speak for them. Church attendance began dropping since the "don't ask, don't tell" practice regarding family planning arose in the 1960s. Yet today's congregations depend upon this arrangement. It is hard to imagine how lonely the church would be if everyone who used modern family planning techniques were to disappear from the pews.

Catholics do use birth control, and they talk about the decision with people who will listen. Women talk with their doctors and partners, in addition to consulting their consciences, and seem to have the situation well-managed without the bishops' input.

Having been unsuccessful at changing Catholic attitudes and practices related to family planning, the USCCB is now seeking to hinder the implementation of the IOM recommendations by calling for conscience clauses to prevent "health coverage that violates the deeply-held moral and religious convictions of many."

Many Catholics see no conflict between following their own conscience and making a full complement of services available so that others may do the same. A survey of Catholic voters from 2009 found that six in 10 supported health insurance coverage -- whether for private or government plans -- that included contraception and family planning. Implementing the IOM's recommendations can make this vision a reality for more American women.

As the letter urged Ms. Sebelius, "The recommendations from the IOM are an important step in ensuring that all women will have access to family planning services under the ACA and that all Catholics will be able to listen to their consciences and have their consciences honored in turn." Just ask one of the vast majority of women -- Catholic and non-Catholic -- who use family planning, about her needs. And take the words of those who have a long history of ignoring those needs with a grain of salt.

The organizations that signed on are as follows:

8th Day Center for Justice - Women in Church and Society Committee
Association for Rights in the Catholic Church
Call to Action
Catholics for Choice
Chicago Women-Church
Congregation for Peace with Justice Committee of the Sisters of Providence SMW
Ecumenical Catholic Communion
Faithful of Southern Illinois
Greater Cincinnati Women-Church
National Coalition of American Nuns
New Ways Ministry
San Francisco Bay Area Women-Church
Southeastern Pennsylvania Women's Ordination Conference
WomenEucharist Boulder
Women-Church Baltimore
Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual
Women's Ordination Conference