This Sunday, many Catholics in Pennsylvania are expecting to hear a letter read in their churches which calls on voters to "bring their faith to bear on how we vote this Election Day." It is one of several messages around the country which the Washington Post describes as the bishops making "a last-minute pitch for Romney." Nonetheless, the message of this letter is more nuanced than this, avoiding partisan rhetoric and referring voters to a document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" (which includes what looks like a political platform on a wide variety of issues).
It is true that their position matches Romney where his new-found opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage is concerned. However, the USCOB policy positions are far more extensive than that and sometimes decidedly liberal, for example opposing war and expressing moral doubts about preventive attack, ending the use of landmines, ending the death penalty, calling for just wages, right to unionize, welfare to reduce poverty, food stamp funding, and addressing climate change.
The most salient plea noted in the Post, as detailed in another letter beautifully written by Paul S. Loverde, Bishop of Arlington, Virginia, is a strong argument that the Obamacare requirement for employers to cover the costs of health insurance that includes contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-inducing drugs is a direct violation of their religious freedom. This sentiment, echoed in a more strident fashion by Bishop Jenky of Peoria, Illinois, evoked even more strident opposition, but has been embraced by Republicans, who introduced the Religious Freedom Tax Repeal Act in July, and is the basis of lawsuits by private for-profit employers that have led to temporary injunctions while the issue is debated.
Yet however eloquent Loverde's letter may be, its philosophical basis is questionable. The basics of Obamacare are that as of 2014 people will have access to health insurance without discrimination in availability or pricing based on preexisting condition or sex. If a woman obtains contraception or abortion from her doctor, the employer should not pay one penny more for her health care coverage than otherwise, or indeed, if she were a man. To say that the employer is "paying for abortion" in this instance is a very abstract argument, and for the employer to demand exemption from this tax is no different than an ordinary taxpayer refusing to pay a portion of his income tax because he doesn't believe in the war in Afghanistan (note also that states have begun exercising options to exclude abortion from covered services).
If we allow employers to claim religious exemptions, where do we stop? Should an employer be permitted to reject all health care compensation for operations that involve blood transfusion or organ transplants based on religious belief? If we found ourselves in a position where employers were converting to Falun Gong so they only have to pay for health care that involves faith healing, we would not have upheld religious freedom but made a mockery of it. Employers are being asked to pay money, not to do abortions, and it is fairest to ask the same amount from all of them.
The argument that some churches self-insure and therefore would be directly impacted is more serious — nonetheless, offering health insurance in the Obamacare market means covering a standardized range of services. One would hope that such churches can negotiate some way to subcontract the bulk of procedures, but leave the distasteful aspects to some other insurer. It is the individual who ultimately is intended to gain a right to health care compensation — and to make the decisions about how to use it.
While obviously some people prefer contraception and possibly certain abortions not to be among the covered expenses, if it comes to saying yes or no to Obamacare as a whole, they should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Obamacare, by creating a right to affordable health insurance in all the other areas like prenatal care, childbirth, and for children with preexisting genetic conditions, might offer women the choice to keep infants they might not otherwise felt able to afford. Those who want an economic policy to reduce the number of abortions should consider carefully which may be the more important effect. They should also consider whether the Republican initiation of an entirely unnecessary war with hundreds of thousands of people killed in Iraq, and the real possibility of starting another unnecessary war in Iran, should be of even greater importance for their deep-seated sense of respect for human life. In the end, none of the bishops actually tell people which way to vote in the upcoming election — voters should not dismiss this as a mere legal technicality, but recognize that their votes remain their own moral decision.