by Sarah Lipkis
In late January 2012, President Obama announced as part of the Healthcare Reform bill that all employee health insurance must offer free contraception, including religiously affiliated organizations (but not places of worship themselves). Outraged by the mandate, religious figures led by Cardinal Timothy Dolan call it an attempt by the government to intrude in religious affairs. Cardinal Dolan argues that forcing a religious institution to offer contraception as part of health insurance undermines religious freedom. In an attempt to compromise with religious institutions, President Obama shifted the responsibility to insurance companies, so the insurance company absorbs the cost, instead of the employer. The issue shows no signs of going away anytime soon, as Dolan has recently announced a desire to bring the mandate to the Supreme Court. We’ve heard plenty from the religious and political leaders who are challenging the mandate. The Nine Ways of Knowing launched a survey to hear from our fellow students who may have had first-hand experiences with the issue.
Students who responded to our survey had a wide range of opinions on the issue. Those who agreed with the President argued that many women do not use contraception because they are sexually active but rather because it is medically beneficial. For example, one student mentioned that her doctor decided to put her on birth control because she was undergoing surgery.
Many students favored the President’s mandate because neither the government nor religious intuitions should have the right to tell women how they should treat their own bodies. One student compared the controversy to when women where marginalized in the 1950s.
On the other hand, students who where against the President’s mandate saw it as stepping on the toes of religious organizations or as forcing an unpopular opinion onto the public. For example, one Barnard senior wrote that the mandate is “not only something that half of this nation believes is wrong, but it does not defend the rights of the citizens who don’t believe in contraception. We all should be able to act based on our ‘Choice of Conscience.’ Mandating organizations to act against this choice of conscience is reprehensible.” Similarly, another respondent wrote that “to force them to provide health coverage for contraception is akin to forcing a Jewish institution to serve pork in their cafeteria. It may not make a lot of sense to those who do not believe contraception is immoral, but it messes with the boundaries between church and state, and it is ethically murky to force someone to go against their own conscience.”
A small group of students fell somewhere in the middle. They argued while religious institutions should offer contraception, those who can afford it should pay out of pocket for it. Another argument that was raised was that while acknowledging that contraception does go against religious conviction, insurance plans should offer contraception in order to prevent unwanted pregnancies. A current Barnard senior wrote, “In terms of religious values, I think religious institutions should be more worried about abortion as the consequence of unprotected sex and unwanted pregnancies, than the religious value of not spilling seed.”
There was much more consensus on whether students felt that the government is more involved in women’s health than in the past. A current Barnard first year wrote, “I don’t think the trend has ever gone away, to be quite honest. Ever since Roe v. Wade was decided, women’s reproductive rights have always been a hot-button issue in politics. I think it has just become more pronounced in recent months because Republicans are looking to gain the Presidency and a majority in both houses of Congress in November, and they’re using an issue that evokes a lot of passion from the conservative base of their party.”
The majority of students also answered that this was an important issue for them. A current Barnard junior expressed, “It is an important issue for all women. Whether or not I personally use birth control, the principal is whether or not I am legally able to take agency over my own body and reproductive rights.” Other student responses included women’s right to choice, women’s access to basic health care as well as the issue of government involvement.
So in the end, we do not all agree about the birth control mandate. However, we agree that this issue is important to all of us and not going away anytime soon.
Sarah is a junior at Barnard and Photography Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.