We Americans love to declare war on whatever social problem we feel is of vital importance - and sometimes we assume that our political nemesis has declared the war on us. At any given time, depending on who you ask, any number of wars may be raging. From the religious right's point of view, one of those is the War on Christianity. From the progressive left's point of view, a big one is the War on Women's Health.
Over the last couple of weeks we've watched as these two wars met head on following the Obama administration's refusal to grant religious employers an exemption to new rules requiring that health insurance plans include coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services. When we talk about religious employers here, we're mostly referring to nonprofit social service organizations, universities, and hospitals: organizations that serve the general public (not just co-religionists), and who employ people of all faiths and beliefs.
To the right, this is a violation of these groups' (primarily Catholic) fundamental right to religious freedom, by forcing them to pay for a product (contraception at a minimum, abortion at the extreme) that goes against their beliefs.
To the left, the denial of this coverage violates the employee's (mostly women) access to a full range of health care options, and forces them to abide by their employer's religious restrictions - whether or not they are of the same religion.
Whose rights are more important? The employee's rights to make their own private health care decisions with their doctor's advice, or the employer's rights to not have to support practices they don't believe in?
I believe that the employee's rights have to win out. Not only for the access to care, but also for the right to privacy. Under HIPPA, we all have the right to privacy regarding our medical records, including not having to share our health care decisions with our employer.
But the employer is paying for it, right? Well, let's take a look at that a little closer. Those against the administration's decision are saying that religious organizations will "be forced to pay for contraception and abortions." But that's simply not true. Employers pay for health insurance only. What the employee does with that health insurance is their own business.
Saying that the employer has the right to dictate health care choices made by an employee is the same as saying the employer has the right to dictate what the employee may or may not purchase with their paycheck.
Do you need to ask your boss permission before making any purchases for your home? It's the employer's money after all, isn't it? Of course not! Once they pay you, it's your money, and your decision how it's spent.
Same with health insurance. Once the employer purchases it - as part of your compensation package for your labor - what you do with it is between you and your doctor only. At least, it should be that way.
Unfortunately, this being an election year, too much will be made of this perfectly reasonable decision by the administration, and they may be forced into a compromise position. While the compromise may temporarily appease those on the religious right, it will certainly be a set-back for women's access to health, and blow to privacy for us all.