COLUMBIA — The Obama administration's January mandate that insurance providers cover the costs of contraception has polarized the nation, and sides are fighting for the same abstract term: "freedom."
Six panelists voiced opinions Wednesday night about the mandate at Courageous Conversations on Contraception: Women's Health and Religious Freedom at MU. The public forum was organized by the MU Difficult Dialogues program.
One position argues for the reproductive rights of women and the freedom to control their own fertility, without barriers to access. But the law applies to religiously affiliated, nonprofit institutions, and many churches — most notably the Roman Catholic Church — have said covering birth control would violate core doctrines of the faith.
"The issue is whether a religious organization ought to be paying for something for its participants that it deems morally objectionable," said John Baker, former pastor of First Baptist Church and now the executive director of the Community Foundation of Central Missouri.
The First Amendment legally defends these religious organizations, too, said MU law professor Joshua Hawley. That defense stems from historical interpretations of the First Amendment suggesting that no law can ask a group to violate its core doctrines.
Roger Worthington, a project director for Difficult Dialogues, said the event was a way for people of differing opinions, perspectives and identities to exchange ideas, rather than letting their differences become further entrenched. Panelists included those with backgrounds in religion, law, public health and sociology.
But speakers under the same disciplinary umbrella did not always agree.
Rigel Oliveri, also an MU law professor, defended the mandate.
Oliveri reminded the audience that the mandate does not apply to churches themselves. It only applies to the affiliated organizations, such as Catholic hospitals and universities, that primarily serve and employ people who are not members of that faith.
"Once a church becomes, instead, a giant university that employs thousands and thousands of people, I would say they have placed themselves in a different position and need to be willing to abide by laws that we have put in place to protect people from discrimination," Oliveri said.
Access to contraception allows women to have control over their bodies, panelists said. It has also been historically associated with other strides of the feminist movement.
"With the advent of the pill in 1960, after that, women were more likely to be able to participate more fully in political realms and the work force," said Rebecca Martinez, an MU professor of women's and gender studies who offered the perspective she termed "reproductive justice."
Oliveri noted that laws requiring coverage of birth control pills are not new: 26 states had contraception equity laws before 2012. The difference with the January mandate, is that now providers have to pay the cost, with no associated deductible or copayment for female employees.
Halfway through the event, the forum was opened to the audience, an eclectic combination of college students and community members.
One student made the comment that birth control is affordable, so why mandate its coverage?
This evoked a strong response from some panelists, who said it was a question of fairness.
"We could all go and pay out of pocket, but if you make it difficult for people, if you make it more expensive, there are a lot of people who won't have access," Oliveri said.
Martinez added that not everyone has the option of using cheaper, generic birth control because of side effects.
Baker then mentioned his daughter, who has taken a specific brand of birth control pills since she was 16, because doctors recommended it as the only treatment for her cyclic vomiting syndrome.
"It's not just the morality of contraception we're dealing with," he said.
But the Catholic Church allows the use of birth control pills for non-contraceptive purposes, said JoAnn Jorgovan, the assistant director of campus ministry at the St. Thomas More Newman Center.
Jorgovan was the only Catholic panelist and acknowledged that hers was a tall order.
"It's a little intimidating to provide the Catholic perspective, because, you know, it's a big church," Jorgovan said.
The audience laughed, but Jorgovan was sincere when she spoke of a false dichotomy in the debate between the right of the church organization and the right of the woman. Jorgovan said the Catholic Church considers birth control not as a liberty, but as a suppressor of both human dignity and the natural fertility of women.
"The Catholic perspective, as well as mine, is that this is not an authentic freedom," Jorgovan said. "Having a healthy, functioning reproductive system is a normal state for women."
The conversation ended with a comment from a woman who identified herself as a graduate student in public health.
"The word 'respect' is used a lot in this debate: respecting personal freedom, respecting religious liberty," she said. "Religious organizations would like their doctrines respected, and there's not a lot of respect for the people who work there."
There will be another Difficult Dialogues public forum at 1 p.m. Monday in the courtroom of the MU School of Law called, "Implications of the Death of Trayvon Martin."