Bishops Reject Contraception Compromise

By Elizabeth Sepper

It comes as no surprise that tonight the Catholic bishops rejected the White House’s attempts to bend over backward to accommodate religious objections to contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans. The administration’s rules first exempted religious groups. Now the proposed rules allow an even wider array of religiously affiliated employers—including hospitals, insurance companies, social service providers, and universities—to have insurance plans without any coverage of contraception, while making sure their employees can access it. Yet, the bishops are not satisfied.

In court, religiously affiliated employers insist that their concern is religious freedom. But the bishops’ reaction to the administration’s generous proposal suggests they don’t want liberty from the mandate. They want to end it altogether. The general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Anthony Picarello admitted as much just last year, saying that they would not accept any fix that did not remove contraceptive coverage from the Affordable Care Act altogether. Otherwise, “if I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate,” Picarello said. (For a list of for-profit companies challenging the contraceptive coverage mandate, see here (no Taco Bells just yet))

I’d hoped, as E.J. Dionne did, that the Church would accept the Obama administration’s olive branch. But it seems 2013 will be another big year for conscience and contraception.

Thanks to Holly for inviting me to blog for January (I’ve overstayed my welcome!). I very much enjoyed it.

Defending Roe v. Wade, Defending Human Rights

By Elizabeth Sepper

Dr. Willie Parker is one of the few doctors in the United States who perform later-term abortions, up to 24 weeks.  He is one of three who provide abortions at Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic.  A Christian from the Deep South, Dr. Parker didn’t provide abortions for the first dozen years of his career.  But again and again he encountered women whose pregnancies endangered their lives, girls who had suffered rape or incest, and mothers who were too poor to raise another child.  He came to wrestle with the morality of abortion—torn between his religious tradition’s teaching against abortion and his moral commitment to his patients.  He listened to Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermon on the Good Samaritan.  According to Dr. King, the Good Samaritan was “good” because he did not consider himself but instead asked “What will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help him?”  Dr. Parker was moved to examine his own conscience and to ask, “What happens to women who seek abortion if I don’t serve them?”  From that day, he began to perform abortions. (This interview is well worth a read.)

Choosing to provide abortions is an act of bravery. Abortion providers face threats to their safety and families, targeted and expensive regulations, and professional and community stigma.  They share much in common with human rights lawyers, union organizers, and women’s rights advocates around the globe who are harassed by their governments and the majority.  This makes sense if we recognize abortion providers for what they are: human rights defenders, who work to ensure reproductive rights (the Center for Reproductive Rights has argued effectively for this framework under international law).

As we mark the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade tomorrow, we should acknowledge the courage and commitment of these human rights defenders.  In the past two years, state legislatures passed more, and more novel, restrictions on women’s access to abortion and abortion providers’ practices than ever before.  The “graying” of current  providers represents a further challenge.  In the words of Justice Blackmun, “I fear for the future.  I fear for the liberty and equality of the millions of women who have lived and come of age in the . . . years since Roe was decided.”  But tomorrow I simply offer thanks to those who defend our rights on the front lines.

Flu Vaccine Myths and Healthcare Providers

By Elizabeth Sepper

2013 is rife with reports of the terrible human costs of the flu.  Emergency rooms nationwide have been overwhelmed.  Art Caplan’s great blog post urges doctors to educate patients that the flu vaccine is not just for their benefit.  He tells healthcare providers to send a clear message by getting the flu shot themselves.  But what should we do when they refuse?

Flu vaccination of healthcare providers has come a long way.  Before 2009, rates never broke 49%.  Today, almost two-thirds of healthcare providers are vaccinated.

Still, one-third of healthcare providers do not protect themselves, their patients, and the public from influenza.  We remain far short of the national Health People 2020 target of 90%. Do these providers have religious beliefs that raise tricky constitutional and statutory questions?  Do they assert deeply held philosophical objections?  Media accounts suggest so.  We hear of the vegan customer service representative who refuses the flu vaccine because it is grown in chicken eggs, and the religious holistic nurse who objects both to vaccination and to wearing a mask.

But the main reason for going unvaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is that healthcare providers simply did not want to get vaccinated. Other common reasons: they think flu vaccines don’t work, fear experiencing side effects, or don’t think they will need the vaccine.  Some reasons do not reflect the evidence. Others suggest, as Art Caplan puts it that healthcare staff need to “stop thinking only about themselves.” Continue reading