When Belief Becomes More Important Than People

Conservative evangelical Wheaton College has decided to stop offering health insurance plans to students rather than comply with federal requirements under the Affordable Care Act. The school is suing the Department of Health and Human Services claiming that the requirement to notify the federal government about the college's religious beliefs about contraceptive coverage violates the school's freedom of religion. This notification would require the college's insurance provider to offer coverage for contraception directly to students and would thereby, according to college officials, implicate the college in providing contraceptive coverage.

Wheaton College opposes certain forms of contraception that leaders there consider to be abortifacients, primarily IUDs and morning-after-pills or emergency contraception. The American Medical Association, National Institutes of Health, and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reject the notion that IUDs and emergency contraception cause abortions. Pregnancy, as defined by these medical professionals, begins once a fertilized embryo has implanted in the uterus. Before that, a fertilized egg is not considered a viable pregnancy. Morning-after-pills, then, do not end a pregnancy (they prevent fertilization or implantation) but rather prevent pregnancy.

Leaders at Wheaton College, however, argue that life begins the moment an egg is fertilized, and therefore preventing implantation of a fertilized egg is an abortion. Note that this is a theological belief, not a medical fact.

My goal here, however, is not to engage in a theological debate about when life begins. My concern is that the leaders at Wheaton College find a theological proposition to be more important than the actual students within their care. Wheaton's vice president of student development acknowledged that students had been hurt by the college's decision to end insurance coverage rather than notify DHHS of the college's religious objections and trigger direct coverage by their insurance carrier.

Given the timing of the announcements, students have only a short time to find new coverage before the old coverage ends. The school did say it would set up a fund to help financially strapped students pay for the increased cost in coverage.

Nonetheless, the College has made a profound choice -- belief over people. While claiming a position that values life, the College has made choices that value the potential life of a possible fertilized egg over the actual lives of students who may well require insurance coverage in the present to avoid or treat life-threatening and health-compromising conditions. So in the name of fidelity to a theological belief, the College has prioritized potential human beings over actual ones.

I'm not saying theological beliefs are unimportant, but I am disturbed that in the name of Christianity, a college would put its principles over its people. People of faith disagree about abortion. Wheaton College is free to believe as it chooses about the issue. But when "right belief" becomes more important than right practice, we should give pause to see if the belief really is right or if the principle is worth harming the very people entrusted to our care. Let me paraphrase the Apostle Paul: If you say you have principles, but you do not care for the people right in front of you, what good are those principles?