Little Sisters’ Case: A Forgotten Voice

By: Matthew Ryan

I love the Little Sisters of the Poor. As an undergraduate student, I fulfilled my public health program’s service requirements by volunteering at their nursing home in St. Louis. Each week, I would drive from my pristine, Jesuit college campus to the neglected part of the city. The sisters’ home was on an abandoned block without a street sign. The sister’s “neighbors” were a few burnt-out homes and mostly over-grown lots.

Inside, the nuns housed and loved the most vulnerable. I volunteered on the floor with residents suffering from dementia. I remember one nun in particular, Sister Isabella, who had given her entire life to caring for our elderly poor. Every hour or so, Sister Isabella would greet one resident who could no longer speak audibly nor open her eyes. Sister Isabella would hug her, sing to her, and often take her outside to feel the sunshine. This, in addition, to cleaning up after the residents, leading prayer before meals, and ensuring each resident got out of his or her bed each day.

Sister Isabella—and the Little Sisters in general—have remained imprinted in my memory. They have been a tremendous example to follow. When the rest of society, many Catholic churches included, had given up on the “least of our brothers and sisters,” the Little Sisters quietly went about doing the work of God. My admiration for them has made the recent Supreme Court case—and the battle over the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage—all the more difficult.

The Little Sister’s burden from the contraceptive mandate has been well documented. All sides may not agree on how burdensome it is, but the argument has focused on this point.

Mother Loraine Maguire, a Little Sister, believes the case is resolving “whether the government can force [her] order to help offer health care services that violate [her] Catholic faith.” But Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, believes the accommodation simply requires the Little Sisters “to sign a form saying that they are a religious institute and that they have religious objection… That’s all they have to do.” These are two vastly different interpretations, and the justices echoed similar disagreements during oral argument last week. Justice Roberts believed the government has “hijack[ed]” the health plans, whereas Justice Sotomayor likened the accommodation to conscientious objection from the military.

Doctrinally, the focus on the nuns’ burden is well placed. But like all difficult religious accommodation suits, two rights are conflicting. And the rights of another important group have largely gone silent in the public discussion: the rights of the employees of Little Sisters of the Poor, and of other religious non-profits.

Women across our country need access to contraceptives to ensure healthier families, reproductive autonomy, and self-fulfillment. This is as true for the nursing assistant at the Little Sisters’ homes, or a student at Geneva College, as it is for an associate lawyer in New York. Ensuring access for these women will not only benefit them, but all of us. It will improve health outcomes. And most notably to my Catholic brothers and sisters, decrease abortions.

As the First Amendment debate swirls over the constitutionality of the mandate (and the Court seeks a potentially new workaround to resolve the issue), it is critically important that we keep in mind the many silent voices working at religious non-profits across America who deserve access to full medical care.