Bishops: Back Off!

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Sarah Murphy - NWHN Intern
Tue, February 21, 2012


Week one of my feminist intern adventures in Washington, D.C. exceeded my expectations to say the least. After receiving a warm welcome from the NWHN staff, I was ready to get to work, but also slightly unsure as to what that work would entail. After being at the NWHN for only a few days, I found myself checking in, wide-eyed, at the National Press Club for an event organized by Catholic Students for Women’s Health. After sharing an elevator with Kathleen Kennedy-Townsend (no big deal) and being asked for a comment by NPR (who, me?), I proceeded to a press room filled wall-to-wall with cameras and excited feminists.
All of this fuss comes in the wake of the recent HHS mandate that employers provide all women with birth control without co-pays, with the exception of certain churches and houses of worship. Catholic institutions such as universities are not exempt from this mandate, causing bishops to cry out in defense of their religious liberties.
What I witnessed was the heartfelt testimony of a handful of pro-choice Catholic students who supported the mandate, pleading their case for something that should need no defense: access to contraception. I chuckled with pride as our own Keely Monroe spoke, claiming that getting birth control at her Catholic university was “about as easy as finding a good man in a want-ad.” Not all the stories told by the students were so lighthearted, however. I grew hot in the crowded room as I listened to student after student discuss the difficulty they had experienced trying to obtain and afford the birth control they needed on Catholic campuses from Georgetown to Fordham University. I found myself in tears as law student Sandra Fluke told the story of a friend who needed contraceptives not for birth control, but for her painful ovarian cysts. Sadly, she was not able to get the medicine she desperately needed and later had to be rushed to the hospital during an important exam when one of the cysts burst. Her school simply refused to believe her when she said that she wasn’t using the pill for birth control – a stifling sadness fell over the crowd when Sandra added, “my friend is gay.”
I returned to the NWHN office that morning with a fire lit beneath me. As a very recent college graduate, I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be denied birth control at my student health center or to have to pay for it out of pocket each month. The statistic was tossed around countless times during the press conference: 98% of Catholic women use or have used contraception at some point in their lives. These women want and need birth control, so what’s the disconnect? To me, the issue here seems to be a deep-seeded mistrust of women and a fear of our liberation, not “religious freedom.”
Since the press conference, the Obama administration has come up with a compromise that would allow religious institutions and universities to avoid paying for (but not providing) contraception, shifting the cost instead to health insurance companies. Unsurprisingly, the bishops are still not satisfied and will continue to fight to oppose the birth control mandate until they once again secure their “right” to deny young college women the birth control that they need.
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