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Gerson Gets it Wrong on Contraception

Sarah Lipton-Lubet,
ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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February 3, 2012

Earlier this week, Michael Gerson’s disregard for the health of women and their families appeared once again on the pages of the Washington Post.

The affront? The administration’s announcement that all new health insurance plans — except those held by churches and other houses of worship — will need to include coverage for birth control because it’s essential preventive health care for women.

Gerson’s pronouncement? If the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ lobby doesn’t get everything it asks for, there must be a “war” on religion.

Institutions like hospitals and universities employ people of diverse faiths and backgrounds. This rule respects religious liberty while preventing religiously affiliated organizations from using religion as an excuse to discriminate and deny services to others. Organizations that operate in the public sphere should play by public rules. That’s not a “war” on religion; that’s the Constitution.

Here’s what really happened late last month when the administration announced it would keep its new rule on contraception intact: Millions more women will now be guaranteed that, when they have health insurance, it will include the coverage they need — to prevent unintended pregnancies, to protect their health and to plan their lives.

Here’s what Gerson got wrong:

  • Nothing changed with respect to abortion coverage. Contraception prevents pregnancy. End of story. By making contraception better available, the rule reduces the need for abortion. But why should silly facts get in the way of polemics when there are uteruses to be policed!
  • No one will be compelled to use birth control, or to sing its praises. Practicing birth control will continue to be a personal decision; one that a woman makes in accordance with her own beliefs or faith. But no longer will women be compelled to go without this basic care — which is what the lack of insurance coverage means for so many families.
  • The administration would not have escaped “controversy” if it created loopholes for a long list of institutions that employ people of diverse faiths and backgrounds. Gerson and his friends might have been appeased, but the countless women who depend on their insurance coverage for access to health care — and all the men, women, and families who support fair treatment — would have been appalled by a decision to put politics ahead of women’s health.

But here’s the one thing he got right: This decision does have broader implications than ensuring women have access to the health care they need.

By standing with the employees at religiously affiliated institutions, the Obama administration sent a clear message that religion is not an excuse to discriminate. That may be a blow for the bishops’ political agenda, but it’s a victory for those of us who promote equality and true religious freedom side by side.

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