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The cost of conscience

Posted: February 7, 2012 11:09 a.m.
Updated: February 8, 2012 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- Two of the top news stories this past week have revolved around reproductive rights, though both raise far more troubling issues than a woman's right to contraception or abortion.

The more compelling questions concern a person's or an institution's freedom of conscience and the right to act upon one's moral beliefs without fear of intimidation and/or government coercion.

Both cases -- one involving the Catholic Church and the other, Susan G. Komen for the Cure -- deal with the ongoing conflict between the pro-life and pro-choice camps. And both are exposing the dangerous extent to which some pro-choice advocates, including the president of the United States, are willing to tread on fundamental freedoms in order to impose and secure ideological purity.

To recap: Komen created a firestorm with its recent decision to stop donating about $680,000 a year to Planned Parenthood. (On Friday, Komen released a statement noting that Planned Parenthood will be eligible for future grants, although they won't be guaranteed.) The money was supposed to be used for breast cancer screening. Planned Parenthood doesn't do mammograms, but refers women elsewhere, sometimes reimbursing them using Komen funds.

Komen CEO and founder Nancy Brinker has offered a couple of reasons for the decision, including the preference to directly fund mammograms, but insists that it had nothing to do with politics or abortion. Not everyone is buying her varying explanations, especially critics who point to Komen's senior vice president for public policy, Karen Handel, a well-known GOP pro-lifer. A former Georgia secretary of state, Handel lost her run for governor in part, ironically, because pro-lifers didn't see her as quite pro-life enough.

Whatever one believes about the motivation behind its decision, the larger point is that Komen has no binding responsibility to allocate any part of its $93 million in grants to any organization. Komen is a nonprofit, free agent, and the good it has performed for millions of underserved women around the world is staggering.

Nevertheless, given the rabid response from abortion-rights supporters, you'd think Brinker and her organization were running puppy mills for soup vendors. Even if their real reason for ending funding is because they no longer want to be associated with an organization as politically controversial as Planned Parenthood -- or even if because some of their potential donors want the relationship severed -- it is inarguably their right to change course.

Don't like it? Don't run in Komen's fundraising races. Don't buy a pink blender. Give directly to Planned Parenthood. In fact, both organizations have enjoyed a surge in donations since news of the break erupted. Note to fundraisers: Create an enemy, enjoy a bonanza.

On a far more serious level, Catholic institutions are under siege by the federal government vis-a-vis the Affordable Care Act, which requires nearly all employers to provide health insurance that covers contraception, including in some cases abortifacient drugs. The Obama administration insists these offerings are part of women's health and should be made easily available; Catholics, both liberal and conservative, feel these requirements are the edge of the wedge.

Essentially, the new law forces them to either forfeit their most fundamental beliefs or face prohibitive penalties -- or close hospitals, schools and other charities, with catastrophic consequences for millions who depend them. For perspective, one in six patients in the U.S. is cared for in a Catholic hospital.

The Obama administration has given Catholics a year to adapt to the new rule, which is a laughably obtuse approach. The Catholic Church is a 2,000-year-old institution that has faced more severe persecutions than a government mandate to provide funding for morning-after pills. But this politically inept and morally fungible step does reveal utter disregard for religious liberty.

The war is on. Nearly 150 bishops (almost 80 percent of dioceses) have spoken out against the Obama mandate. Catholic voters, who helped put Barack Obama in office (54 percent to 45 percent) in 2008, may not be with him this time. Even those who supported his 2009 Notre Dame commencement speech against the protests of other powerful Catholics are protesting now.

These immediate battles may be about abortion or contraception, but ultimately they are about whether we stand firm on our nation's core beliefs in freedom of conscience and religious liberty. The stakes could not be higher and, though surely political, the endgame shouldn't be about Republican or Democratic war spoils.

The fundamental question is: Who are we? As we individually search for the answer, we know this much: Coercion and intimidation are the tools of mobs and tyrants and have no place in this calculus.

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