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Letters & Op-Eds - 2001

the nation

Bully in the Pulpit

Frances Kissling

12 March 2001

Ellen Willis is right but does not go far enough. Even without Bush's faith-based initiatives the Catholic Church not only demanded but received exemption after exemption from providing the most unexceptional forms of reproductive health. No emergency contraception for women who have been raped. No voluntary postpartum sterilization for women who are having what they hope will be their last child. No fertility treatments for women who would like to a child.

These services are legally denied by Catholic hospitals and they are often eliminated in secular hospitals that merge with Catholic institutions. Catholic Charities of California has sued the state, seeking an exemption from a state law that requires employers - other than religious institutions engaged in narrowly defined religious activities - to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees. At the same time Catholic Charities nationally receives about 75 percent of its income from US government sources. Catholic hospitals receive the bulk of their funding from government sources and tax-exempt bonds.

But the simple claim of conscience by a Catholic institution or the assertion of "church teaching" is enough for most legislators to just give the church whatever it wants as well as tax dollars. There was no national interest in protecting women's consciences when the Clintons included in their health reform package a conscience clause for health care provider institutions allowing them to deny any service they deemed immoral and still be eligible for government grants and contracts. Catholics are against this. Eighty-two percent believe that if a Catholic hospital receives government funds it should be required to allow its doctors to provide any legal, medically sound service they believe is needed. But for most legislators the power of the 300 US Catholic bishops is much more important.

For the bishops to try to have their cake and eat it too is politics as usual. For ultra conservative Catholic groups to claim that any criticism of the Catholic church is Catholic-bashing is part of the game. For our leaders, Democratic and Republican, to keep serving them more cake is unconscionable.

Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

This article appeared in the 12 March 2001 edition of The Nation.