Contraception issue more than just politics

 President Obama and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announce an "accommodation" on the contraception coverage issue.

Story highlights

  • Jennifer Glass: Obama "accommodation" on birth control may quiet political furor
  • But she says lost in the issue are voices of people who work for Catholic institutions
  • She says Catholic policy denies workers with different views right to make moral choices
  • Glass: When worker pays most of premium, should employer dictate scope of coverage?

On Friday the Obama administration offered an "accommodation" in reaction to the furor over a health care mandate that would have compelled Catholic hospitals and universities to cover contraception in their employee health insurance plans -- a policy that had drawn criticism from bishops on theological grounds. President Obama's move may have, for a moment, calmed the political shouting that had pushed the issue into the headlines. But for whom has this problem been addressed? Where are the voices of the employees of these Catholic institutions, many of whom are non-Catholic women of childbearing age?

I was one of those women from 1985 to 1994 as a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame. Both of my children were born during that period. If you thought people must surely know in advance that working at a Catholic university will restrict their health care choices, or that people who don't want to work within those restrictions can simply find another job, I am here to tell you that you are wrong on both counts.

Most non-Catholics have little interest in the intricacies of Catholic theology. Although I certainly knew that the church viewed contraception as morally wrong, I never thought that would mean my health insurance policy would not cover contraception or office visits to obtain contraception. I never imagined if I went to the doctor for another purpose and during my visit obtained a refill of a prescription contraceptive, that visit would not be covered by my insurance, and I would have to pay an outrageously high "out-of-network" price for the office visit.

Jennifer Glass

As a young academic, one would be lucky to receive a single job offer, much less multiple offers from which to choose. More than 200 people applied for the job I got, a figure that is not uncommon at universities. In the course of my job recruitment, no one ever mentioned that my health care options at Notre Dame would be determined by Catholic theology. In fact, Notre Dame, like many Catholic educational institutions, bent over backward to assure me that I would have the same intellectual and political freedoms at Notre Dame as at a secular institution, and that my status as a non-Catholic would not result in any type of discrimination in employment or earnings.

On that last point, Notre Dame kept its word. I was treated exactly like all the Catholic women. Like them, I was denied health insurance that would cover reproductive health services and allow me control over childbearing. Like them, I could not deliver my children at a non-Catholic hospital without paying out of pocket. And like them, I could never rise through the administrative ranks to become president of the university because of my gender.

Maybe I could have gone to a different hospital for some health services. But in many smaller communities, there is only one hospital. And if that hospital is affiliated with the Catholic Church, it is literally the only game in town.

My colleagues at Notre Dame were wonderful people, and I am fortunate to have been able to work and grow as a scholar there. And the institution itself is first rate, with very fine faculty, staff and students. But when Catholic institutions are free to determine what kind of health insurance they offer, that directly limits their employees' freedom to obtain the type of care they feel is morally and medically best for themselves and their families.

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    This whole debate ought to make us ask why health insurance is provided to most Americans by their employers in the first place, giving employers the power to determine the type and price of health care we can receive. The U.S. is the only advanced industrialized nation that relies heavily on employer financing of health insurance.

    Many employers already find this a huge burden and have been curtailing or canceling their insurance plans or raising the portion paid by employees themselves. Should an employer that is paying less and less of the cost of premiums still have the power to unilaterally dictate the scope of that insurance?

    There is also the sticky question of exactly who is ultimately paying for employer-sponsored health insurance. If an employer receives taxpayer-provided money to provide services -- as educational institutions do when they accept Pell grants or federally guaranteed student loans, and as hospitals do when they receive Medicare and Medicaid payments -- should that employer still be allowed to exempt its employees from provisions of federal health care law?

    When a Catholic organization hires employees from the general public, offers services to the general public, and accepts government money for those services, it should not be allowed to impose its theological conditions on its employees' health care choices by refusing to cover contraception. That is not religious freedom; that is religious imperialism and comes dangerously close to the "establishment of religion" that is prohibited by the Constitution.

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