The Billings Outpost

Much heat, less light in contraception battle

I was born into a South Texas fundamentalist church, so I was raised as a bit of an anti-Catholic bigot. I remember in Sunday school as a kid reading a pamphlet that tried to seriously argue that the pope was the anti-Christ.

I still bear a modest grudge over having had to eat fish on Fridays in the elementary school cafeteria because Catholics in those days couldn’t eat meat on Fridays. I didn’t mind the fish, but I hated the tablespoon of ketchup that was invariably ladled over it. Neither ketchup nor Catholicism has had much appeal to me ever since.

But I have learned to live with both of them, even though I couldn’t help but notice even in first grade that the government-run public schools were a lot more concerned about catering to Catholic sensitivities than to my own rigid anti-ketchup ideology.

So cured am I of religious bigotry that when the controversy broke last week over requiring insurers, including Catholic hospitals and schools, to provide coverage of prescriptions for contraceptive drugs, I felt only the slightest twinge of Schadenfreude at the thought that the dispute might be payback for all that gloppy ketchup I had to choke down as a kid.

I have never really understood, or tried to, Catholic opposition to contraception. Apparently, lots of Catholics don’t get it either. But religious liberty is serious business, and enough confusion has arisen in recent days about what is at stake to make even the most devout despair of sorting out the issues.

Part of the confusion has involved Montana, which has shown up in news reports as one of 28 states that already require employers who cover prescription drugs to cover contraceptive drugs. Montana even has been listed as one of eight states that don’t exempt churches that raise religious objections.

Those news reports were based on a 2006 opinion by then-Attorney General Mike McGrath, who concluded that since only women get pregnant, it would be discriminatory to deny coverage for drugs that only women need. Attorney general opinions have the force of law until they are overturned by a court or superseded by legislative action, which has not happened here.

But alert news consumers also will have noticed that The Billings Gazette ran an article last week in which a St. Vincent Healthcare employee here bemoaned the lack of coverage for contraceptives. How to explain the contradiction?

Simple enough. According to St. Vincent Healthcare, it is self-insured, so it wasn’t covered by the attorney general’s opinion. That leaves open the question of how useful it is to be told that Montana requires coverage of contraceptives when the opinion leaves a hole large enough for St. Vincent Healthcare, the first entity most Billings residents would think of when they consider the issue, to squeeze through.

Also left unaddressed was Montana’s stance in a lawsuit filed by Planned Parenthood seeking to force the state to pay for contraceptives through its Healthy Montana Kids program. The program pays for healthcare services for those up to age 18 who lack insurance, but it doesn’t pay for contraceptives.

Planned Parenthood says that discriminates against women, but the Attorney General’s Office has filed for a summary judgment upholding the state’s position.

The confusion isn’t limited to Montana. As Bob Somerby noted in his Daily Howler blog, many news outlets have used that 28-state figure recklessly, without making a serious effort to understand what the restrictions actually mean.

It took liberal Lawrence O’Donnell, Mr. Somerby noted, to point out on MSNBC that many of the state laws have huge exceptions that make them very different from the federal regulation.

“We liberals sometimes exult over surveys which purport to show that we know more facts than the other tribe,” Mr. Somerby wrote. “We are better informed, we say. Fox folk are factually clueless.

“The worth of such surveys always depends on which facts are put on the test. If O’Donnell’s assessment is accurate, we liberals have been misled about some basic facts all week long.”

Unfortunately, the confusion papers over some real questions. What about the rural pharmacist who refuses to dispense birth control pills, as has happened in Montana, forcing women to drive to other towns to fill prescriptions? Or the Minneapolis cab drivers who refuse to give rides to anyone carrying alcohol because it violates their Muslim religious beliefs?

After all, the new federal regulation, no matter how intrusive it may be, does not require anyone to take contraceptive drugs. The law historically has properly protected acts of individual conscience, but it has never done much to protect wallets.

During the Vietnam War, conscientious objectors were exempted from combat duty. But they weren’t exempted from paying taxes to support the war.

Milton Mayer, a Quaker and a pacifist, once wrote an essay in The Progressive about his decision to withhold 34.6 percent of his federal taxes, the part he figured would go to paying for the armed forces he opposed.

“The government doesn’t want me,” he wrote. “Men are a dime a dozen. What the government wants is my dime to buy a dozen men with.”

It will be interesting to see those who attack President Obama’s position on who has to pay for birth control defend with equal vigor those who for religious reasons refuse to support military budgets.


Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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