Catholic Women at Odds With Church Over Contraception?

Findings from a recent study revealing the use of contraceptives and abortifacients among Catholic women appear to contradict claims made by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in its fight against a government mandate for religious organizations to provide birth control healthcare in insurance packages.

The Catholic Church has long banned the use of contraceptives and abortion. The Vatican codified the ban in an encyclical letter from Pope Paul VI in 1968 saying that "the direct interruption of the generative process already begun and, above all, all direct abortion, even for therapeutic reasons, are to be absolutely excluded as lawful means of regulating the number of children." This mandate has been upheld by the Vatican and Catholic organizations, including the USCCB, since and refers to both artificial means of contraception and abortion.

Meanwhile, the Guttmacher Institute found that 98 percent of Catholic women have used artificial contraceptives or abortifacients, in stark contrast to regulations put forth by the Holy See.

So what's the truth? Is there a rift between clergy and female parishioners? Are Catholic women purposely defying religious leaders? Is the statistic untrue? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says it's the latter.

"[The Guttmacher stat] is irrelevant, and it is presented in a misleading way," the group said in a statement. "If a survey found that 98 percent of people had lied, cheated on their taxes, or had sex outside of marriage, would the government claim it can force everyone to do so?"

The USCCB believes the poll has been manipulated by the White House – and specifically by Director of Domestic Policy Council Cecilia Munoz (whom Catholic groups had previously praised) – to manufacture a need for contraceptive care within the religious community.

"But this claim also mangles the data to create a false impression. The study actually says this is true of 98 percent of 'sexually experienced' women," the statement read. "The more relevant statistic is that the drugs and devices subject to this mandate … are used by 69 percent of those women who are 'sexually active' and 'do not want to become pregnant.'"

The April 2011 Guttmacher study, entitled "Countering Conventional Wisdom," pinpointed USCCB and the Catholic Church in general as the main proponent of prohibiting contraception coverage for young and low-income women while continuing to "advocate for special exemptions so broad as to allow entire institutions, including insurance plans and hospital networks, to refuse to provide contraceptive services and supplies."

That USCCB denies the verity of Guttmacher's report suggests the group believes that there is no a problem – that Catholic women are at no greater risk of unwanted pregnancy if religious providers don't offer contraceptive care.

But some Catholic women think there is a palpable chasm between the Catholic Church and it's female parishioners.

Cathy Glasson, a Catholic medical professional, says the USCCB is out of line to say it would be better to take away essential reproductive care from millions of women and girls who need it.

"Sometimes I am completely shocked by the actions of the church. Now is one of those times," Glasson wrote to the Des Moines Register.

"Just because most women's insurance policies will cover contraception in no way means they have to use that benefit. Also, the rule from the Department of Health and Human Services gives religious employers, such as churches, a waiver on the requirement," he added.

Adam Sonfeld, policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute, says women, regardless of affiliation (and including the demographic of Catholic women) by and large support greater contraception coverage in insurance plans.

"There is a strong body of evidence demonstrating that contraceptive use and the prevention of unintended pregnancy improves the health and social and economic well-being of women and their families," Sonfeld said in the Guttmacher report. "Women from all walks of life and varying religious affiliations have come to this same conclusion and acted on it."

"Sound public policy making should recognize this and support women by making contraceptives easier and more affordable to use. Health policy should not serve as a proxy for religious dogma," Sonfeld said.

Despite overwhelming statistical evidence suggesting that Catholic women are in favor of greater contraceptive coverage, Judy Powers, President of the National Council of Catholic Women (NCCW), says women should stand by the USCCB protest of the government mandate.

"[NCCW] is extremely disappointed by the Obama Administration's decision to ignore requests from Catholic institutions to broaden the exemption to a proposed rule that mandates that all employers offering employee health coverage provide access to contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients," Powers said in a statement sent to CP.

NCCW has urged Catholic women to write Congressmen and ask for the repeal of the mandate, adding that requiring contraceptive care violates their Christian values.

"Our mission is rooted in service as the hands and feet of Jesus Christ and our commitment to live out our Gospel traditions," Powers said. "NCCW stands with the [USCCB] in urging that this … mandate be overturned, and we are committed to working with our members to reform the law and change this unjust ruling."

If there is a rift between Catholic women and clergy regarding the contraception mandate, it is not the stance of major Catholic women's organizations. And there is no evidence to suggest Catholic women are actively defying clergy orders. Perhaps it is the case that Catholic women and clergy agree in principle but disagree in practice regarding contraception use.

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