A few weeks ago the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO stated, “We commit to ensuring that women have the right to quality health care, including equal access to contraception, and have the ability to exercise that right regardless of where they work.” Is America’s labor movement picking a fight with the Bishops?
Not exactly. Delegates to the AFL-CIO convention staked out this position on this issue in 2001. The Affordable Care Act was still a decade away, and Catholic institutions were not the issue. At that time many women workers called on employers and insurers who covered drugs like Viagra for men to cover birth control pills for women. While Catholic teaching does not recognize these as equivalent, much of the public did, and the AFL-CIO took up the cause of the employees.
Meanwhile, the workforce at Catholic hospitals continued to evolve. Catholic hospitals were created and long staffed largely by women religious. Because of their commitment to the faith, the sisters wouldn’t have sought access to contraception (and of course, because of their vows would have had no use for it in any event). But as the years passed the Catholic ministry in healthcare changed. What was once all about Catholics expressing their faith by caring for the sick is now largely about Catholics hiring others to care for the sick on their behalf, creating a latent conflict brought to the surface by the unfortunate mandate.
Catholic health care administrators object to providing employees insurance coverage for contraception methods violating church teaching. Employees of Catholic hospitals – who may not share the faith of the hospitals’ founders and administrators – contend that their access to a widely enjoyed health benefit shouldn’t be contingent on the religious beliefs of their boss. The AFL-CIO and the USCCB, which often work side by side on issues like immigration and the workers’ rights, find themselves on opposite sides of an important policy debate.