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April 18, 2012 Volume 33, No. 28

Experts in law, medicine and religion debate the contraception issue


Catholic Church remains opposed to contraception

An MU Difficult Dialogues forum on April 4 sparked discussion about a controversial federal mandate requiring religious institutions to include free contraception in health care coverage.

More than 80 MU faculty, students and community members filled a Hulston Hall classroom to debate the merits of the national controversy.

Panelists included medicine, law, gender and religion experts, who provided historical and medical context before launching a debate that has prompted religious rallies, health care plan changes and four ongoing court cases across the country.

Audience members asked panelists questions about the burden on women to pay for contraception and birth control, the responsibility of religious institutions as employers and the timing of the backlash to the federal legislation.

Last January, the Obama administration mandated that employee health insurance plans include free birth control by August 1, 2012. The deadline for religious institutions to adopt the plan is August 1, 2013.

Twenty-six states, including Missouri, have passed laws requiring insurers that cover prescription drugs to also offer FDA-approved contraception, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Missouri and 17 other states also offer religious exemptions. 

Rigel C. Oliveri, an MU professor of law, said the only provision the new rule adds is stripping the deductible or co-payment requirement. “Just as we want churches to do good work, we also want them to obey the generally applicable laws that we have for very good reasons,” she said.   

MU law professor Joshua D. Hawley pointed to 120 years of court decisions giving religious organizations the right to choose their leaders, structure, rites and practices. 

He said the ongoing question is: Should government be able to force religious organizations to pay for contraception even though it’s against their religious beliefs?

For many religious organizations and institutions, the answer is no. 

The Catholic faith is opposed to contraception and upholds the value of all people, said JoAnn Jorgovan, an assistant director at St. Thomas More Parish & Newman Center in Columbia. Rejecting the fertility of women means rejecting women entirely, she said.

John Baker, a former senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Columbia, said the teachings of religious leaders do not always align with the practices of the people.

He gave an example of birth control used for health reasons rather than reproductive regulation. 

“It’s not just the morality of contraception that we’re talking about,” Baker said.

Health and women’s rights activists argue that contraception health care coverage protects reproductive and health care rights for women.

Rebecca Martinez, an MU women’s and gender studies professor, said that in the past pregnancy could prevent women from working. The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act now makes pregnancy-related discrimination illegal. But unplanned parenting can add psychological and health barriers to employment for women, Martinez said.   

Shawna Strickland, an MU medical associate professor, said her focus is the importance of informed consent.

“I’m hesitant to say that birth control is bad,” she said. “

But I’m also hesitant to say that birth control is good because like every other drug on the market there are good and bad aspects.” 

— Lauren Foreman