No, that does not mean they’re covering “contraceptives.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md

The issue is still religious liberty and not access to contraceptives, but some like Rep. Elijah Cummings and his pro-abortion fellow travelers at the National Women’s Law Center raised a distraction that deserves response.

Call it a teachable moment, or perhaps a “nip-it-in-the-bud” moment because I can see this question coming up later.

Cummings produced a list that purported to show Catholic institutions that already cover contraceptives. The obvious implication being that if these institutions already do then it must not be that big a deal.

First, the question is not what any individual institution or person chooses to do of their own accord, but what can the government constitutionally force individuals and institutions to do? This is not mere semantics. It’s liberty versus coercion.

The Cardinal Newman Society wrote about it on their blog. While the author over there touches on the reasons why this is a non-issue morally I asked Dr. Patrick Lee, the director of the Institute of Bioethics here a Franciscan University, if he could chime in with a more complete response.

Here’s what he wrote…

A contraceptive is not a chemical or a thing, but a type of act. Most chemicals can be used for different purposes. For example, arsenic is often used as a poison to kill people. But at one time it also was used as a component in a treatment for syphilis. Obviously, physicians prescribing arsenic for treatment of syphilis were not engaging in homicide—they did not prescribe a “killing pill.” In the same way, to use the chemicals often used for contraception, but not for that purpose—instead, to treat a pathology such as endometriosis (a disorder in the lining of the uterus including inflammation)—is not contraception. And an insurance policy that covers prescriptions of drugs for such treatment are not covering contraceptives. Franciscan University’s Insurance Policy does NOT cover contraceptives though it does cover prescriptions of drugs for purposes other than contraception.

Here’s how the Pope in Humanae Vitae defined contraception, that is, the kind of act that is intrinsically morally wrong: “Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation–whether as an end or as a means.” (Humanae Vitae, #14) In other words, what defines an act as contraception–the kind of act taught to be morally wrong by the Pope here–is not what chemicals, if any, are used, but doing something either as an end or as a means, in order to prevent procreation.

Then, a few paragraphs below, the Pope added: “On the other hand, the Church does not consider at all illicit the use of those therapeutic means necessary to cure bodily diseases, even if a foreseeable impediment to procreation should result therefrom–provided such an impediment is not directly intended for any motive whatsoever.” (#15)

The latter would include taking drugs to correct a pathology, injury, or disease, including drugs in other contexts people might use for the purpose of preventing procreation. Here the prevention of procreation–if that is an effect, for if the woman is not ovulating or is not sexually active, then that would not be an effect–would be a side effect, foreseen but not intended, and could be justified if there is a serious reason to take that drug.

The same point is made by the United States bishops in the authoritative teaching in the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Facilities: “Direct sterilization of either men or women, whether permanent or temporary, is not permitted in a Catholic health care institution. Procedures that induce sterility are permitted when their direct effect is the cure or alleviation of a present and serious pathology and a simpler treatment is not available.” #53 Procedures that induce sterility as a side effect would include hysterectomies as an example, but also the taking of drugs, for the alleviation of a present and serious pathology, which cause temporary sterility as a side effect.

Thus, when the Newman Society’s blog said that, “Franciscan University of Steubenville provides coverage for contraceptives but not for the purposes of birth control,” that actually is self-contradictory—if the drug is not for the purposes of birth control then it’s not a contraceptive. Franciscan University’s insurance policy does not cover contraceptive prescriptions.

Morally speaking, what you do includes why you did it. If I hit someone in the head with a hammer it better be because it was the proportionate means available to me to prevent him from harming another and not because I feel like doing it out of anger or cruel pleasure. If a doctor prescribes chemicals for cysts, chemicals that could also prevent conception, and the insurance covers those chemicals to treat cysts, the doctor and the insurance have prescribed and covered a treatment for a medical condition.

This is not mere semantics—intentions matter. You can reject that, but you cannot reject it on my behalf.



  • Mary

    I blame Darryl Issa for the Republicans getting totally burned on this one. He pulls together a panel on the issue and is so tone-deaf that he includes NO women. C’mon! Whether we believe this is about religious freedom or access to contraception, it’s all theater folks. The image of an all-male, frowning panel was dunderheaded and lame. And then you have to hand it to the left for finding Ms. Fluke, putting her on stage, setting the bait for that fool Limbaugh, and completely winning the religious freedom vs. women’s health debate in the public sphere. Obama’s now up another 7 points with women. If we’d stop being so hard-core and dogmatic, and figure out the theatre aspect of all this, maybe we’d start winning the game. And yes, it’s a game.

  • Jackson

    If there’s nothing wrong with simply enrolling in a plan with contraception, then there’s no conscience violation for individuals in this mandate. After all, companies are obliged to offer a plan without contraception–which violates individual’s conscience–and a plan with contraception–which violates no individual’s consience.

    • Tom Crowe

      Jackson— The mandate doesn’t apply merely to individuals: it applies directly to employers. If the employer, like Franciscan University where I work, is a decidedly and devotedly Catholic institution and seeks to uphold and instill Catholic values, this mandate will force the institution to provide coverage for contraceptives if even one employee wants them. That’s not okay. The Church and her adherents are not interested in supporting another’s unquestionably immoral habits. The mandate will force us to. The conscience of the individual is not the question here—the conscience of those who run the institution is. Forcing us to provide even one plan that would cover contraception is, in fact, forcing us to be willing to cover contraceptives. We are not willing to do so, on moral grounds, and thus we ought not to be forced to be willing. For more, check out the parables I discuss in my post called “So Khalil walks into a deli. Wait, did he just buy ham?” the better parallel would be the government forcing an individual to take part in another’s action regardless of the fact that person forced against their will views the action as immoral.

      • Jackson

        If it’s all about the institution, then we’re set to endorse polygamy, right? We must support the right of established religious beliefs of our Mormon brothers and sisters, and we must not mandate against Mormon employers who want to provide benefits for polygamous marriages.

        • Tom Crowe

          Except that the institutional Mormon church has abandoned their polygamist doctrine. Had a revelation or some such. But if a given institution wishes to provide such coverage, more power to ’em. Our beef is not what other institutions choose to cover or not to cover, but what the government chooses to force us to cover. Any more red herrings? They’re tasty this time of year.

          • Jackson

            Tom: note that I made no reference to the Mormon church. I stated an individual Mormon EMPLOYER…speaking of red herrings… Many religious groups have subsets that live by different “laws”…some Muslims live by Shariah law, others do not. Sunni and Shia follow different codes of ethics and morality…some Mormons choose to reject polygamy, others accept it (that’s an established fact). How can the government discriminate against one sect of a faith because they don’t subscribe to the big tent beliefs? And how is the government supposed to determine which set of beliefs is “correct?”

          • Tom Crowe

            Jackson, I repeat: we are not the ones trying to get the government to force anyone to do or not do something in this situation, we are asking that they *not* force something upon us. I raised the Mormon church issue to point out that if the “individual employer” in question were an organ of the Mormon church then they would not be able to claim, “but we’re Mormon so it’s part of our faith,” because it’s not (regardless of whether individual Mormons choose still to believe it). But beyond that, and I said this before, if a given employer chooses to cover polygamist arrangements *that’s their business*!! I don’t think the government should be able to tell them that they can’t (and I’m pretty sure they don’t). I said that before. I do hope you see the difference between the cases here and how your point is immaterial, a non-parallel.

  • Bro AJK

    I read the editorial in America today. Having read your series beforehand, I feel the magazine’s word choice might be poor, but it might just be in agreement. (To be clear, I know the issue at hand regards the First Amendment; don’t try to convince me otherwise.)



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