So Religious Liberty Now Means the Freedom to Endanger Women's Health

"A direct attack on religious liberty."

Echoing the words of many Catholic authorities and their socially conservative allies, that's what Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for Mitt Romney, has said about a new rule announced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

By Aug. 1 of this year, says the rule, all private health insurance plans must cover all FDA approved methods of birth control at no cost to the woman treated. Since Catholic organizations believe and teach that contraception is immoral, they insist that this new rule would force them to violate their religious beliefs. For this reason, they say, it attacks religious freedom.

On the contrary, the new rule simply aims to protect the health of American women. Not to serve their convenience, but to safeguard their health.

The rule is firmly based on a report issued by the Institute of Medicine, an independent group of doctors and researchers.

In the year 2008, this group found, about half of all pregnancies in the U.S. were unplanned, and about 42 percent of those ended in abortion. But birth control cuts the rate of unplanned pregnancies and thereby cuts the rate of abortion. In other words, birth control cuts abortion rates. Nothing else works so well against them.

Second, the report says, women with unplanned pregnancies are more likely to smoke, drink, and skip or skimp on pre-natal care, all of which endangers the fetus and increases the risk of premature birth and low birth weight.

Third, says the report, birth control pills can do many things besides preventing conception. These pills are used to treat menstrual problems, migraine headaches and pelvic pain, and they can also reduce the risk of endometrial cancer and several other diseases.

That crucial point has failed to dent the brain of Michael Galligan-Stierle, President of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, who recently declared that birth control cannot be considered a "preventive service" because "we do not happen to think pregnancy is disease."

Even if pregnancy were not something that every woman should be allowed to prevent for the sake of her health, Galligan-Stierle fails to realize that birth control pills may be urgently needed to treat what anyone would call disease. In a recent New York Times article on the HHS ruling, Denise Grady tells what happened to a law student at Georgetown University who was denied coverage for the birth control pills prescribed by her doctor. Even though the prescription plainly stated that the pills were meant for the treatment of polycystic ovarian syndrome, she was repeatedly denied coverage for the pills, which she then had to buy herself for $100 a month. When she could no longer afford them, she developed a large ovarian cyst that had to be surgically removed -- along with her ovary. As a result, her capacity to bear children has been impaired for the rest of her life. Is this what we mean by religious liberty?

Let's get something straight: religious liberty is not absolute. Under our system of justice, there is no such thing as an absolute right to anything. You cannot legally shout "fire" in a crowded room if there is no fire. You cannot legally shoot a gun if I happen to be standing in front of it. You cannot legally advocate the violent overthrow of the U.S. government (no matter how badly you may want to bring it down). And regardless of your religious beliefs, you cannot legally deny care that is needed to preserve the health of someone whose health you are insuring, or for which you are in any way responsible.

This point has already become a matter of law. In refusing -- on religious grounds -- to cover a type of care that is plainly needed to safeguard the health of American women, Catholic institutions are acting like Christian Scientists. Because Christian Scientists do not believe in medical science, they generally do not accept medical care for themselves, and many do not allow it for their children. But their religious beliefs have recently run head on into the law. The California Penal Code holds that "any person who ... willfully causes or permits any child to suffer ... or permits that child to be placed in such a situation that its person or health is endangered, shall be punished by imprisonment." According to Caroline Fraser, the state of California has obtained criminal convictions against two sets of Christian Science parents who allowed their children to die without medical treatment.

I have no evidence that any woman has ever died as a direct result of being denied access to birth control. But we now know for certain that denying or impeding such access -- by making women pay for it -- endangers their health, raises the rate of unplanned pregnancies, and thereby raises the rate of abortion. Religious liberty means the freedom to worship and proclaim one's beliefs. It does not mean the freedom to deny medical care to anyone who needs it and who depends on her insurance plan to provide it.

To deny such care will soon be illegal under the new ruling. But quite apart from the new ruling, denying such care -- whatever one's religious beliefs -- is simply immoral.