The Contraception Question

President Obama seems to have followed the example of the Komen Cancer Foundation (ironically) as he plans to amend a decision regarding women’s health that was met with widespread criticism. His administration’s recent health care mandate requiring private insurers to, as a part of minimum coverage, include contraception sent a number of religiously minded figures and politicians, most prominently Catholics, up and over the wall.

To keep from straying too far from the election, and geography, at hand, Republican former Senator George LeMieux, who is running in 2012 to reclaim a seat on the senate floor representing Florida, commented that he doesn’t see value in religious institutions (particularly those of his own faith, Catholic) taking government money at all. LeMieux thinks that “many of the problems of the federal government – that it’s too large and spending too much, is a moral problem at its base.” And, of course, he adds that America is becoming “too secular” and there’s a “war on Christianity”. I certainly think the last point is in error– although Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s recent Newsweek cover story brings up an interesting counterissue.

But anyway, LeMieux carries with him the general conservative response to Obama’s health care mandate, that it is restricting the liberty of religiously affiliated institutions by (until just recently) foregoing their religious exemption and forcing them to provide benefits that they see as antidoctrinal. A couple important things to note in this vein: firstly, a point my friend raised in a discussion earlier this week, to be “religiously affiliated” does not equate to having an all-religious staff. Many universities and hospitals that might qualify for a religious exemption have a number of staffers that may disagree entirely with the organization’s religious views (as if an organization can really even have religious views– maybe policies, but at any rate, that’s a issue for another time). A Methodist nurse at a Catholic hospital could easily find the contraceptive benefits useful and religiously sanctioned even if her bosses think that it’s a bad idea.

And in a way, though, I do agree with LeMieux’s initial point: why are these religiously affiliated institutions taking taxpayer money at all if they don’t want to abide by the policies dictated by our elected officials? It just seems like a strategically bad decision on their part–to expect lawmakers to run the risk of violating the Establishment Clause (in at least a spiritual sense, so to speak) to provide certain institutions with special treatment? Those accusing the President’s administration of being “anti-Catholic”, simply because they have set 21st century-level health standards that happen to conflict with a certain tradition’s beliefs and practices seem to, as the saying goes, want both to have and to eat their government-funding cake.

In 2012 election terms, I wouldn’t expect LeMieux to, if elected, devote a awful lot of time to encouraging religious institutions to disassociate themselves from the government, except in the sense of supporting privatization everywhere. His comments came as a sort of afterthought, where he was truly coloring himself an opponent of the contraception law and, as a religious minority candidate himself, wanted the government to recognize the exemption for religious institutions. I’d personally prefer to see a health care system that gives people a universal option for health care rather than this mandated stuff, and for the American government and media to work to educate people more on health issues so as to combat the opposition to contraception in the first place. Nevertheless, while 2008 seemed to be an election year of the economy and the war, 2012 seems to have replaced concern over conflict overseas with health care. And in swing states down below, in Florida as well as North Carolina, the concerns of the religious–minority or not–will almost certainly continue to take the forefront of political discourse.

Walker Bristol grew up in southeastern North Carolina, in a town somewhat known for being the principal filming location of Dawson’s Creek (his parents, and reality, insist that his brother Dawson was born and named prior to the show’s pilot). He escaped to Boston when he was 17, and now serves Italian food and studies religion and linguistics at Tufts University. He wrestled in high school, but now mostly ballroom dances and jams on the piano with the rest of the Tufts Freethought Society. For the first decade of his life, Walker believed “incorrectly” that he was living in the Star Wars universe. Having never been to space, he remains agnostic on that question.


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