The debate surrounding the Health and Human Services Department’s contraception mandate has too often been framed as one between essential women’s health and the scruples of some hierarchical old priests. But Catholics of all stripes are coming to the defense of the hierarchical old priests, recognizing that this debate is, in reality, about religious freedom on the most basic of levels. This view even passed the E. J. Dionne test: Dionne wrote that the administration “utterly botched” the handling of contraception with the new health-care law.
He wrote, “Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the Church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the Church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings.”
Even the most liberal of Catholics realizes that this debate is really about Constitution 101.
The political Left, however, sounding increasingly hysterical, is more or less making the argument that cheap birth control is crucial for women’s health. According to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, contraceptives “have significant benefits for [women’s] health, as well as the health of their children.” In the words of Laura Murphy, the director of the ACLU’s Washington office, “access to affordable birth control is essential for women and their families.” According to Dr. Laura Johnson, the chief of the Division of Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, “giving women and their families, regardless of their employer, full access to these essential services gives them the best chance at living happier and healthier lives.”
Since they are making this a Health 101 issue, let’s all pause for a moment and consider some facts.
Let’s start with the fact that oral contraceptive pills are considered to be carcinogenic by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research. As Nikolas Nikas and Dorinda Bordlee note, “The American Cancer Society website has published that list, where the pill ranks alongside asbestos, coal tar, benzene, and tobacco products.”
Contraceptive pills have also been linked to the dramatic spike in sexually transmitted diseases among women today — including HPV, which now afflicts nearly half of all women ages 20 to 24. This might explain why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists “Using birth control pills for a long time (five or more years)” as a major factor increasing one’s risk of getting cervical cancer (which is directly linked to HPV). Some forms of hormonal contraceptives, such as Depo-Provera, actually list in their own FDA label that taking the drug increases one’s risk for breast cancer.
So there’s a lot to consider when discussing the health aspects of this HHS rule. And is it true, in any case, that there is a crisis of accessibility when it comes to these drugs? I tend to doubt it, when I read that schools are now installing Plan B dispensing machines in dormitories and fitting 13-year old girls for contraceptive implants.
As the facts I have outlined above indicate, there can be a debate on the merits of contraception. But even those who disagree on that issue should agree that the HHS mandate is a grave offense against religious liberty.
— Ashley E. McGuire is editor of Altcatholicah.
EDITORS NOTE: This post was originally misattributed to Michael Potemra.