Should secular Catholic institutions (such as hospitals and universities) be required to abide by federal rules that say healthcare plans have to cover contraception? Or should they receive a conscience exemption from this rule, as churches themselves do?
Two new polls today shed some light on this question. The first one, from the Public Religion Research Institute, asked if all employers should be required to offer healthcare plans that cover contraception:
- All Americans: broad agreement, 55%-40%
- Catholics: broad agreement, 58%-37%
But maybe respondents weren't specifically primed to think that some employers are churches that have theological objections to birth control. So the second survey asked the general question first (getting similar results to the PRRI survey) and then asked specifically if Catholic hospitals and universities should be included:
- All Americans: broad agreement, 57%-39%
- Catholics: broad agreement, 53%-45%
In both cases, the numbers are much higher for Democrats and Independents. It's really only Republicans who object much, which strongly suggests that most of the objection is rooted in ideology, not religious conscience.
Now, there's obviously no reason that churches should be bound by opinion polls, but here's why this matters anyway: as I mentioned in passing a few days ago, it's important to understand whether contraception is truly a matter of contention in America. It's arguably reasonable, I think, for the government to tread carefully in areas where there's substantial, highly-charged controversy, such as abortion. But contraception just isn't one of those areas. Catholics agree with the new policy on healthcare plans at the same rate as other Americans; what objection there is, is mainly ideological, not religious; and as a much-cited Guttmacher survey shows, 98% of sexually-experienced Catholics use active methods of birth control. The takeaway from all this is pretty clear: conservatives may oppose the contraception requirement for ideological reasons (which is fine), but it's plain that contraception is simply not a moral hot button for Catholics. To put it plainly, it's not a matter of conscience. It's a matter of conscience only for a tiny number of men in the formal hierarchy of the Catholic church. That's it.
My position on this is plain: the church hierarchy's objection to birth control is medieval and barbaric. All those Catholic pundits raising hell over the new contraception regs should spend their time instead raising hell with their own church over a policy that's caused incalculable pain and misery for millions of women around the globe. Instead, they're all claiming that although they don't have any problem with contraception, they think the government should be more sensitive toward those who do. But it turns out there's practically no one who does. They're all pointing their fingers toward a group of people that barely exists.
When there's a societal consensus in a secular country, religious institutions have to accept that, and in America there's a virtually unanimous societal consensus on contraception. Americans don't have any problem with contraception. American Catholics don't have any problem with contraception. And on a public health basis, requiring healthcare plans to cover contraception is common sense. No one — almost literally no one — thinks there's any problem with it. It's a non-issue.