Coercion in the Name of Freedom? 

By Richard M. Doerflinger

May 11, 2012

The "Freedom From Religion Foundation" has placed a full-page ad in the Washington Post. It urges Catholics to "quit the Catholic Church" over its teachings on sex and procreation, asking: "Will it be reproductive freedom, or back to the Dark Ages?" 

Noting Catholic opposition to the Obama Administration's mandate for covering contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs in most private health plans, the ad declares: "The Church that hasn't persuaded you to shun contraception now wants to use the force of secular law to deny birth control to non-Catholics."

This is so topsy-turvy a description of what is going on that I guess the Post's advertising fact-checkers are out sick.  But in case anyone is swayed by such charges, the facts may bear repeating.

It is, of course, the Administration that wants to "use the force of secular law" to deny a freedom Americans have long enjoyed.  Until now, Catholics and non-Catholics alike had the freedom to decide, without federal interference, whether to buy the above-mentioned coverage or not.  A religious organization with a moral objection could exclude the coverage from the health plan it subsidizes; an individual who wanted those drugs and procedures could choose to work for an organization that subsidizes them, or use his or her own money to buy them.

Under the Administration's mandate, by contrast, there is no free choice – for employers, or for individual women.  Almost everyone must have coverage for the full range of anti-pregnancy technologies aimed at women, from surgical sterilizations to the injectable and implantable drugs often used by overzealous population control programs in the Third World.  (Interestingly, male methods such as condoms and vasectomies are excluded.)   An extremely narrow "religious employer" exemption will let some churches and houses of worship opt out – if they focus on "inculcation of religious values," and don't hire or serve people of other faiths. 

The Administration will delay enforcing its mandate for one year for a wider class of religious employers – those which educate, heal and serve the public.  But once this year is up, the coverage will be provided "automatically" to these organizations' employees, whether the employees want it or not – and to their "beneficiaries" such as teenage children, with guarantees of "privacy." 

This acts out a script that Planned Parenthood and its allies wrote many years ago.  In 1995 PP's former research arm, the Guttmacher Institute, issued a position paper titled "Uneven and Unequal" that urged comprehensive "access" to "reproductive health" services as part of health care reform.  It insisted on covering these procedures for enrollees' children "confidentially," so parents need not be aware what others are encouraging their children to do about pregnancy prevention.  The Institute said such coverage should be available without co-pays or other out-of-pocket expenses – not only to maximize access, but to ensure "confidential care" (that is, teens can obtain the services without telling Mom why they need twenty dollars). 

So this dispute is about religious freedom, and other freedoms as well.  As part of its human rights stand on population policy, the Church has long insisted that government should not be encouraging or dictating the specific methods by which parents decide the size of their families.  The Church has also supported the freedom of parents to be primary educators and guides for their children, including on matters of sexuality.  Those freedoms are forfeit when the federal government can reach into every family in America to ensure that children are counseled and given drugs, implants or surgeries to prevent pregnancy behind their parents' backs.  To justify that agenda, you need a broader slogan than just "Freedom from Religion."  Maybe "Freedom from Freedom" will catch on.

Mr. Doerflinger is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.  To learn more about the bishops' efforts on religious freedom and rights of conscience, visit