Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Contraception and More Contraception: The Religious-Political Debate That Won't Subside

An interesting set of articles in just the past several days about the issue of contraception (and its political application in the U.S. elections in 2014):

At National Catholic Reporter, Robert McClory points out that a key finding of the Univision poll of Catholics across the globe re: issues of family and sexual ethics is that the issue of contraception is "a 45-year-old elephant in the middle of the living room"--a large percentage of Catholics worldwide flatly reject magisterial teaching about contraception:

I was especially struck by one result: that concerning the use of contraceptives. Here, there was a veritable landslide of support for their use over almost the entire world. The result was an overall 79 percent favoring contraception in opposition to church teaching.

As I did yesterday, McClory urges the pastoral leaders of the church to remember John Henry Newman's insistence that a critically important part of the process by which the truth claims of any church teaching are verified is the reception (or non-reception) of that teaching by the people of God. When there is sustained refusal of the laity over a considerable period of time to "receive" a magisterial teaching, Newman maintained that the pastoral leaders of the church then need to engage in dialogue with the lay members of the church about that teaching--to consult the faithful and pay attention to the sensus fidelium

As McClory puts this point,

The so-called teaching church must consult with all sides and all those affected by the troublesome teaching. Doors and windows must be opened, and everyone must listen.

That is, the teaching church must--if it expects to be effective and credible--behave in the exact opposite way in which the bishops of England and Wales, Ireland, and Canada are now behaving, as they refuse to share with their flocks the results of their surveys of the faithful on the issues to be discussed by the Synod on the Family. As the Irish Association of Catholic Priests has recently noted, the refusal of the bishops of these nations to share with lay Catholics information about what those lay Catholics reported in response to the Vatican questionnaire leads many of us to wonder if these bishops will doctor the responses they have received, in order to make them more congenial to the Vatican.

As Jerry Slevin notes in his recent open letter to President Obama prior to the president's meeting with Pope Francis, the issue of contraception continues to have strong political utility for the U.S. Catholic bishops: in Jerry's view, 

Francis and his US bishops appear already to be working actively with their conservative billionaire backers to try to exploit "wedge issues", like contraception insurance and marriage equality, to boost conservative voter turnout in key states, especially among US Latino voters, and thereby to gain control of the US Senate 

And so he offers the following advice to the president:

You can see, President Obama, that the typical papal political ploys, including the anti-contraception legal crusade,  are clearly in evidence at present. For example, so many Catholics in good conscience favor contraception as part of responsible family planning that parish priests have barely discussed its purported "sinfulness" in recent decades. Nevertheless, the contraception issue is still considered useful by the Vatican to draw out "one issue anti-abortion" voters, who overlook the fact that contraception reduces the need for abortions. Of course, Democratic US Senate candidates may also use the issue to draw out more pro-choice voters, as happened in 2012.

Jerry suggests that the political strategy being employed by the USCCB counts on "'one-issue abortion' voters" to follow the bishops' lead in opposing the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act (and to vote Republican), even though one study after another--most recently, the Guttmacher Institute's study--shows that wider availability of contraception reduces the need for abortions. The bishops count on one-issue abortion voters, in fact, to confuse the issues of abortion and contraception in precisely in the way the bishops themselves have done as they wage war against the Obama administration's ACA contraceptive guidelines.

From its inception, the USCCB's "fortnight for freedom" campaign, which directly targets the Obama administration and the ACA's contraceptive mandate, has deliberately confused the issues of contraception and abortion by maintaining--and this is simply untrue--that the mandate "requires almost all employers, including Catholic employers, to pay for employees' contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs regardless of conscientious objections." 

What is false is the claim that abortifacient drugs are covered by the ACA mandate. The HHS guidelines state plainly

Women with reproductive capacity have access to all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling, as prescribed by a health care provider. Abortifacient drugs are not included (my emphasis).

As I've noted in previous postings (e.g., here), leading Catholic journalists who should know better continue to assist the bishops in spreading their lies their confusion about the ACA's contraceptive mandate as a mandate for coverage of abortifacient drugs--specifically, their confusion about the so-called "morning-after" pill as an abortion-causing medication, rather than a contraceptive. 

At Religion Dispatches right now, Sarah Posner has a valuable essay that illustrates how this confusion plays out in the public square. As she notes, in early February, the New York Times's "Room for Debate" column asked readers what unhealthy products the CVS pharmacy chain should stop selling. One of those responding to the question was Donna J. Harrison, executive director of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who argued that the morning-after pills ella and Plan B are 1) ineffective at preventing pregnancy, and 2) abortifacient, since they "may act by blocking a newly conceived embryo from implanting, rather than by preventing fertilization."

As Posner reports, the Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has responded to Harrison's claims, noting that, when a newspaper of the stature of the Times runs a column whose sole statement of opinion about a scientific matter is one that runs directly agains the consensus of the scientific community (namely, that the morning-after pill is a contraceptive and not an abortifacient, and that it is an effective medication), it behaves like a journalistic rag that treats the denial of evolution or climate change as credible "scientific" opinions: Sullivan writes, 

And that’s all the more troubling because Dr. Harrison's point of view is one that runs counter to scientific consensus: that this kind of emergency contraception is safe. It's almost as if – within the context of some barely related overall question — the only writer on the topic of climate change was one who denied its existence or the only writer on evolution was a creationist. Dr. Harrison's view is outside the medical mainstream but, as the singular voice, gets all the trappings of approval.

As Sarah Posner points out, what's most bizarre about the position taken by Harrison is that it simultaneously argues that the morning-after pill is ineffective, and that it's "evilly effective"

But it's not just that Harrison maintained incorrectly that emergency contraception is unsafe (a topic taken up by some of the parties who filed amicus briefs in the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases currently before the Supreme Court). It's also that she argued that it's both "ineffective" and evilly effective ("in certain situations, emergency contraception may act by blocking a newly conceived embryo from implanting, rather than by preventing fertilization.") Here, like many opponents of emergency contraception, she wants to have it both ways: she claims it doesn't work, and yet argues it still can work in ways that make it an "abortifacient," even though it is not classified as such by the FDA. Contra Harrison, and the editor who defended presenting her views, the scientific consensus is that ella and Plan B function by preventing ovulation. According to the Mayo Clinic, "If you're already pregnant when you take the morning-after pill, the treatment will be ineffective and won't harm the developing baby."

Posner concludes that the false claims being made by some political activists like Harrison (and, I'd add, the U.S. Catholic bishops) "continue to swirl around debates about religious freedom." And that they raise the following question: "Does religious freedom protect the rejection of science and evidence-based policy?"

She's absolutely correct to ask that question, it seems to me. The Hobby Lobby case hinges on the claim that a private employer should enjoy the right to withhold certain types of medical coverage from his or her employees, because his religious belief instructs him to do so. The case hinges on the claim that what an employer chooses to believe about an issue like contraception--namely, that the morning-after pill is an abortifacient, no matter what overwhelming scientific consensus says about it--ought to trump the right of any employee to medical care that the employer wishes to withhold.

Just because. Because his/her belief tells him to behave this way. Regardless of what science may say about the "belief" held by the private employer. 

This debate is hardly academic: as a recent Religion News Service article of Bob Smietana (by way of NCR) notes, a Tenneseee pharmacist fired last fall by Walgreen's, Philip M. Hall, has filed suit challenging his firing on the grounds that it violated his religious freedom. As Smietana reports,

Hall was fired in August after working six years for Walgreens. He believes Plan B contraceptives cause abortions and refused to dispense them.

Hall is a Baptist deacon. The Walgreen's for which he worked had previously had an arrangement with him allowing him to refuse to sell the morning-after pill to a customer, but to refer the matter to another Walgreen's pharmacist. 

However, things became heated when the FDA approved the sale of the morning-after pill as an over-the-counter medication. Hall was then told that Walgreen's expected its pharmacists to sell the medication, and six boxes of Plan B were delivered to the Walgreen's store at which he worked, labeled as behind-the-counter medication, he bought all of them and threw them away.

It was at this point that he was fired. And he is asserting his right, in the lawsuit he has just filed, to engage in this behavior. Because his belief tells him to act this way. Regardless.

If you want to see an example of how this absurd song and dance about my beliefs and what they should dictate to you--because I say so--is playing out at the Catholic university of Notre Dame right now, read Grant Gallicho's latest posting at Commonweal's blog. The unavoidable conclusion to be reached when one has read Notre Dame's baffling set of arguments about why it opposes the ACA's contraceptive mandate, though the Obama administration has bent over backwards to accommodate each and every objection Notre Dame can think to raise: it's fundamentally political.

It's all about opposing the Obama administration and assisting the Republican party in regaining control of the federal government. Even if that end is accomplished by attacking a healthcare plan that, while it's far from perfect, promises to bring more citizens on the margins into networks of coverage. And even though Notre Dame's mendacious and silly arguments about the ACA (echoing those of the bishops) make mincemeat of all that's best about Catholic moral theology, thereby undermining the credibility of the church and its moral teaching in the public square in a striking way . . . .

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