Matthew Colford ’14, a Catholic, believes that while there are definitely differing opinions within the Catholic community over the decision, “it’s not a very prevalent issue or discussed very much within the Catholic community,” said Colford.
The disagreement stems from the Catholic Church’s opposition to any artificial means of preventing conception, such as birth control pills. The mandate, part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, would require all organizations, including those based on Catholic principles, such as hospitals and schools, to provide contraception in the health care plans they offer their employees.
Dean of Religious Life Reverend Scotty McLennan believes that acrimonious debate has been prevented by the civility of dialogue at Stanford, which, as Dean McLennan said “have been carefully maintained.” In the past, according to McLennan, the religious community had occasionally split on issues such as discrimination based on sexual orientation and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but McLennan admitted, “not much has bubbled up on [contraception].”
Dean McLennan, who as head of the Office of Religious Life is responsible for overseeing 35 religious student groups, contrasts Stanford’s relatively tame disagreements with other universities: “While you can see other universities, let’s say with Israel/Palestine, leading to violence on campus, we’ve tended to do quite a good job of dialogue and engagement.”
Supporting this culture of engagement are “structures on campus…which lead people to interact with each other, to take each other seriously, and to listen to each other,” he observed.
But despite this lack of vitriol, there are serious disagreements over the morality and constitutionality of requiring coverage of contraception. Kenny Capps ’13, a member of the Catholic Leadership Team, opposes the decision on religious grounds, but also believes it is more than just a Catholic issue: “Putting religion aside…it’s not constitutional.”
Capps also criticized the Obama administration for what he sees is a betrayal of the Catholic community, saying “even Catholics who support contraception…they’re also very angry because Obama said he wasn’t going to do this to religious groups.”
Colford holds an entirely different view: “my opinion is similar to that which I understand to be a majority of Catholics, which is that contraception is indeed a vital part of not only women’s health but human health and…it’s not an infringement on religious rights.”
In fact, far more than a simple majority of Catholics utilize birth control. The New York Times reports that 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women have used birth control before, in violation of official Church teachings.
Colford thinks this acceptance of contraception in some cases extends into the official Church hierarchy. As he explained, “if you were to look even at a local level at various parishes and priests you would find quite a few of them…who would come down on the side of contraception.”
Capps acknowledges this discrepancy, but he argued, “a lot of Catholics don’t follow what the Church says on contraception, but just because a lot of them don’t doesn’t mean that’s not what the Church believes, nor does it mean the Church should change to accommodate them. That’s not how the Church operates, and it’s not how any religion operates.”
Miranda Mammen ’14 sees this gap between popular opinion and official teachings as evidence of the politicization of the issue: “There’s really been an effort to make birth control seem like a political issue, and to me it’s really very much a health issue.”
Mammen, a member of the student staff at the Women’s Community Center, believes the flap over contraception is part of a broader Republican assault on women’s reproductive rights, but sees a silver lining for her cause. “One great advantage of this controversy is that it is showing people that reproductive rights…are not as secure as we might think, and I’m hoping that will galvanize people’s support for pro-choice candidates,” Mammen told the Review.
One attempt at resolving the issue was the Obama administration’s offer of a compromise with the Catholic Church, whereby insurance companies, rather than the Catholic organizations themselves, would pay for contraception.
This compromise, which was designed to help Catholic organizations avoid directly paying for contraception, was quickly rejected by the Catholic Church and many Republicans as meaningless, since Catholic organizations would still be bound to provide access to contraception.
Associate Professor of Medicine Jay Bhattacharya ’90 MA ’90 MED ’97 PhD ’00 criticizes the proposed compromise from an economic perspective, arguing that the cost would ultimately still be borne by the organization and the consumer, not the insurer, in the form of higher premiums: “It contradicts economic law to say that if I require an insurer to provide me band-aids for free, then band-aids are free.”
Bhattacharya believes the bill will reduce the cost of contraception, but he questions why the administration decided to make such a controversial decision, because contraception, as he explained, “is such a small cost relative to other costs in the world of medicine.”
Bhattacharya also raises another possible argument against the administration’s decision, namely, that “insurance is over uncertain things.” Contraception, as something that is often used regularly and is arguably a form of insurance itself, is not obviously a type of good that should be covered by insurance, irrespective of questions of religious freedom or health benefits.