As a physician and pediatric specialist, I know that news of the HHS regulations today means that more women will have access to the kind of health care that has been denied to millions over the years because of the high cost. Over 50% of girls and women who use contraceptives take them for reasons other than the prevention of pregnancy. Since the beginning of his first presidential campaign in 2007, President Obama has emphasized the importance of preventing unintended pregnancy as the most moral approach to solving the abortion problem. These new regulations, providing for greater access to contraception, will certainly help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies across the country, and correspondingly are likely to further decrease the incidence of abortion.
It's well-established that over 50% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended. Along with other measures incorporated into the Affordable Care Act, these new regulations are part of a concerted effort to support women and to help them avoid unintended pregnancy. Our study of expanded healthcare access in Massachusetts after 2006, published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2010, showed that access to healthcare (and contraception) is associated with a significant further reduction in the rate of abortions.
President Obama has grappled with the deep moral dimensions of these important questions, and I think his determination to help decrease unintended pregnancies is among the chief reasons that he supported these new HHS regulations. Having interviewed Catholic priests who worked with President Obama as a community organizer, funded by the US Bishops' Campaign for Human Development, I know the President cares deeply about Catholic sensibilities. This Administration has expanded faith-based initiatives through its White House Office of Faith Based and Community Partnerships, and has provided record funding for Catholic efforts such as Catholic Charities -- over $500 million in 2010.
As a Catholic, I am aware that some Catholics will hear this news with mixed or negative emotions, including many bishops. At the same time, we know Catholic women, and by extension their families, use oral contraception at the same rate as the overall population. For over half a century, since the issuance of Humanae Vitae, Catholics and Catholic theologians have taken issue with the Church's teaching on birth control.
Today, many will use this decision to further their own political agenda. The need for the hierarchy, theologians, and the laity to come together and discuss these important issues has never been more pressing. This is particularly true at a time when our nation, and our Church, needs informed public debate on a range of moral issues, especially the economy, growing poverty, and the continuing "scandal of glaring inequalities" (see Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, 2009).
It is our hope that both the Administration and the U.S. Bishops' Conference can come together over the next 18 months to develop policies-perhaps following the "Hawaii model"-- that better address the conscience rights of religious institutions while allowing women access to contraceptives without cost. Ultimately, the HHS regulations put the decision of whether or not to use contraceptives at the discretion of each individual woman and her informed conscience, and this is the ultimate test of religious liberty and the protection of conscience.
About Catholic Democrats
Catholic Democrats is an association of state-based groups representing a Catholic voice within the Democratic Party, and advancing a public understanding of the rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching and its potential to help solve the broad range of problems confronting all Americans. Patrick Whelan MD PhD is the national president, and is a member of the pediatrics faculties at Harvard Medical School and the Keck School of Medicine of USC. For more information about Catholic Democrats please go to www.catholicdemocrats.org
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