Opinion: Accommodation on Birth Control Exemption Still Broadens Access for Latinas

The Catholic Church in this country has served and uplifted generations of Latino/as in the United States. But we face a critical juncture in which the views of the Catholic Church hierarchy conflict with those of a majority of its Latino/a members. And that split has affected national health policy.

Despite the nonpartisan Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) expert recommendation that birth control be covered as a preventive health service under the new Affordable Care Act, some organizations and lawmakers want to add an unfair exemption for institutions with religious ties. Catholic Church leaders and their supporters have pushed the administration to broaden the exemption to include religiously affiliated employers such as universities and hospitals that serve and employ people of diverse faiths.

President Obama has implemented a policy that protects and affirms the health of women while accommodating religiously affiliated employers. The accommodation allows women working for religiously affiliated employers to access birth control coverage directly through the insurer while not requiring religious employers to contribute toward that coverage. As the details of this process emerge, we will continue to urge the administration to avoid complicated, or stigmatizing, pathways to coverage that could delay or reduce access to care or expose the employee to retribution from her employer.

This decision could directly impact nearly 1 million people (and their dependents) who work at Catholic hospitals, as well as 2 million students and workers at religiously affiliated universities.

Thankfully, the Obama Administration stood by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the IOM by broadening access to birth control without co-pays for women across the country. While we support the original HHS and IOM recommendations, we remain pleased that the administration has chosen to protect birth control coverage for millions of women—but this step forward for women’s health has been challenged by backlash pushed forward by the Catholic Church hierarchy.

The church leadership has criticized Obama for his stand. But the church leadership does not speak for all Catholics or all Latino/as. We ask, what about the employees and students insured by those institutions who are not Catholic or who do not oppose contraception? And what about the majority of Catholics who support employer coverage of contraception, the very policy the Catholic prelate has targeted?

Research conducted by the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health (NLIRH) shows that Latinas want access to the full range of birth control options. Birth control use is nearly universal in the United States, including among sexually experienced Catholics. What’s more, according to a recent survey conducted by Lake Research Partners on behalf of NLIRH and the Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP), nearly 7 in 10 Latino voters agreed with the statement, “Even though church leaders take a position against abortion, when it comes to the law, I believe it should remain legal.”

Latinas are also disproportionately affected by financial barriers to birth control. According to Hart Research Associates, more than half of all Latinas (57 percent) recall a time when the cost of prescription birth control kept them from using it consistently.

Out-of-pocket costs for birth control can be expensive, especially for many young and low-income women. And using birth control some of the time, but not all the time, leads to more unintended pregnancies.

As national leaders in the movement for Latino/a rights and equality, we support full reproductive rights, including access to birth control for all women. It is our collective responsibility to hear and empower the varied voices within the Latino/a community in the United States, and in recent weeks, we have seen an inspiring outpouring of support for and by Latinas. Latinas overwhelmingly support contraceptive coverage, even as barriers like poverty, language barriers and immigration status challenge their access to birth control. And Latino/a voters are willing to disagree with church positions on reproductive health issues.

In reality, then, voices within the Catholic Church community are much more varied than indicated by church policy. To make sure the actual range of views are heard, we are working with Latino/a community members and clergy to bring their perspectives into this pivotal national debate.

Thanks to the efforts of the IOM and HHS, we are beginning, as a nation, to recognize that contraception is a central aspect of women’s health and the public health. But Latinas in particular face numerous socioeconomic barriers to accessing that contraception. We applaud the Obama administration’s support of birth control coverage for all: it signals the possibility that those barriers faced by Latinas to a vital aspect of health care may finally be reduced.

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