The Little Sisters of the Poor And The Health Care Mandate

A ViewPoint by Deb Vaughn

rosaryThe Little Sisters of the Poor are a caring, dedicated group of nuns. Their life’s work is caring for the elderly poor, a growing and needy demographic in the world. According to their website, they operate more than 25 homes in the continental United States and eight regions around the world.

Their mission and their dedication are without question. They consistently provide excellent health care according to the standards of government surveying agencies. They state, “We are an equal opportunity employer. Each position has its own job requirements, but the qualities we look for in every employee include compassion, respect, trustworthiness, enthusiasm, a positive team spirit and an unassuming professionalism.” Sounds like a great place to work, right?

However, recently their order has come into the spotlight because of their noncompliance with the Affordable Health Care Act.

On January 24, the US Supreme court granted a temporary injunction from the contraception requirement for the sisters’ organization. Read more in this CNN article. According to the Becket Fund website, the Little Sisters of the Poor will not be “forced to sign and deliver forms tonight authorizing and directing others to provide contraceptives, sterilizations and drugs and devices that cause abortions.” (I am not going to quibble over their classification of birth control as “causing abortions” because there is disagreement among medical professionals in establishing causality.)

At first, I shrugged as I read this article in the Washington Post. Nuns probably don’t need birth control. They probably won’t get pregnant and would not pursue getting an abortion, if they did. Being devout Catholics, they would not want have one. Case closed.

And then I remembered…

When I was first working as a music therapist after graduate school, I was hired by a Catholic nursing home. The man who was in charge of the Catholic nursing home Human Resources department informed me that their health insurance “would not allow” contraception reimbursement, nor pay for abortions. Really? I asked. I can’t get a script for The Pill? Not even to regulate my periods and mitigate my cramps? The HR representative blushed. Err…. uh…. No. He was apologetic but firm. And I had to sign a piece of paper stating that I understood these restrictions.

I stopped taking the pill (which in the long run, was probably a really good thing for my body!). I couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket, and at the time there were very few generic options. And the price of finding a job in my field was worth it, I figured, since it was the early 80s and we were in the midst of a recession. A job, ANY job, that didn’t require flipping burgers or waiting tables was a good thing.

The nursing home had over 100 beds. All of the residents needed round-the-clock care. I was one of many employees who were not Catholic. Whether or not we believed in contraception, we could not get it through our health insurance. The facility, which did not teach religious classes but held religious services for Catholic, Protestant and Jewish residents, put restrictions on our reproductive choices. We were not required to believe Catholic doctrine (or even attend Mass) as a condition of our employment. Yet for this one issue, female reproductive care was severely limited.

The bottom line was this: Our religious beliefs were not respected. But we had no recourse.

I have no problem with devout Catholics following the teachings of the Church. But when I am required to live by those teachings, even if I do not agree with them, I am annoyed. The choice of an individual to use contraception (or not) is an intensely personal choice. To be denied that right because of the religious beliefs of the owner is unfair.

The lawsuit by the Little Sisters of the Poor and others is making its way through the courts. As the Supreme Court considers how female reproductive care will be covered through the Affordable Care Act, I can only pray for those who need a job, but find themselves in a difficult position. Do they take a job with a company like the sisters, or others like Hobby Lobby who are private corporations but whose owners are against birth control? Do they put their family planning decisions in the hands of their employers?

Why is this OK? And why are others not outraged?


Related article on Christian Feminism Today – “Contraception, Religious Freedom, and the Supreme Court” by Julia Stronks, J.D., Ph.D.

For more reading, visit the National Women’s Law Center.

© 2014 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today

Rev. Deb Vaughn
Rev. Deborah (Deb) Vaughn is a professional chaplain in the Washington, DC area, where she lives with her husband and young adult daughters. Besides music, her many interests include public speaking, photography, and blogging. She bakes a mean loaf of bread. Deb is an occasional gardener and an avid Ohio State football fan. Occasionally, she even catches up on the laundry. Check out Deb’s blog, An Unfinished Symphony. (photo – Eileen Gannon)


  1. No one was preventing you from getting birth control; they were refusing to pay for it. Would you be willing to pay for someone else to participate in something to which you had a strongly held moral objection? Your argument is even weaker now, as birth control is not terribly expensive.

    Also, people have a tendency to overlook one phrase of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, OR PROHIBITING THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF…. (not yelling, just emphasizing). That’s exactly what they are doing here; they are trying to prohibit these women — and many other people in this situation — from the free exercise of their beliefs..

    I was raised Catholic but not sure I would call myself that these days; I have “issues” with the church. I didn’t agree with their rules about birth control when I was a practicing Catholic, so neither of those factor into my thoughts on this.

  2. I appreciate your perspective. However, I was at the beginning of my career and could not afford it without the assistance of prescription coverage. I rarely went to the doctor (again, the cost). I was not acting in a religious role. I was not providing any religious material. Most of the residents and staff were NOT Catholic. Yet, for reasons not related to my job or my personal faith, I was not able to use a prescription because of cost. This was MANY years ago (in the 80s) and generics were not as prevalent.

    Eventually, I did get back on The Pill. Through Planned Parenthood.

    Now, yes, I could easily afford it (though, TMI, I don’t need it). But at the time, it was a significant financial burden, because of someone else’s beliefs.

    Thanks for your comment. Glad we can freely choose to disagree.


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