Déjà vu All Over Again on Contraception
Originally posted for Feminist Studies in Religion
I was in front of the Supreme Court on March 25, 2014, on a snowy spring morning when the justices heard oral arguments for the Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby case about the provision of birth control as part of health care. Maybe it was the miserable weather with wet snow flakes the size of silver dollars that made me wonder what we were doing in 2014 lining up on two sides of a one-dimensional issue. Democracy demands patience, but enough already when it comes to women’s bodies.
Contraception seemed to be settled ethics, if not settled law, until the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, what some call Obamacare, came along. Stung by its very passage in 2010, opponents have focused on contraceptive coverage as a way to whittle away at the new plan. Ironically, it has proved to be more popular than skeptics expected. Millions of previously uninsured people, including young folks who can stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26, benefit from provisions of the law. But for those who would prefer that the government not be involved in health care even if it means millions would be underserved, birth control is their issue of choice, all puns intended.
Birth control seems so last century. Didn’t our mothers and grandmothers struggle for affordable, effective contraception? Isn’t it part of routine health care, standard of practice, for all women of childbearing age? If so, why is it even up for discussion, much less litigation, when it comes to a law that applies to everyone? No one seems concerned about the removal of an appendix so why sweat birth control when it is part of normal insurance coverage?
In two cases before it, the Supreme Court will decide if private companies can plead religious scruples about covering this basic health care for women. The matter of corporations being religious remains opaque—I’ve never seen one receive communion or fast during Ramadan. What concerns me is the backpedaling on women: clearly women’s bodies are somehow beyond the pale, not normatively human, subject to discussion when it comes to health care. I think not.
Fortunately, there are religious resources this time around to counter the conservative narrative. And there are women religious leaders who prioritize this matter even when some of their usually outspoken male counterparts have apparently taken a vow of silence on the issue. The Religious Institute, “a multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society” issued a statement signed by dozens of religious leaders in support of “contraceptive access for all.” Catholics for Choice and many other groups (including WATER) filed an amicus brief arguing that “people of faith support contraceptive access and true religious liberty for all.” The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, made up of several dozen groups, takes a strong stand for access to contraception, including Emergency Contraception.
These groups, along with the Unitarian Universalist Association, the United Church of Christ, National Council of Jewish Women, and the Methodist Federation for Social Action, co-sponsored an interfaith worship service and procession to the Supreme Court on the snowy day as a way to articulate faith that includes women’s well being. Speaker after speaker made cogent cases for why conscience matters, how we live religious diversity, why women’s health and especially family planning are so important, and what religious liberty means and doesn’t.
Other religious groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholics Bishops, rallied by the Becket Fund turn the religious liberty issue on its head. To insist on the religious right to limit women’s choices by refusing to abide by the new health care laws is an odd, not to say pernicious, claim. One might be persuaded that religious liberty were at stake if the question were blood transfusions, but when it comes to contraception there is little doubt that control of women is the primary motivation.
I have often wanted to say that my faith constrains me when it comes to paying for war, the death penalty, and ecological destruction. But in a democracy one makes certain concessions and finds ways to counter the worst impacts of things with which one disagrees. But apparently women’s autonomy, women’s bodies, women’s choices, women’s moral agency, and women’s well being do not warrant such respect by many people. Is it déjà vu or were we naïve to think that anything every changed at all?
I expect to be in front of the Supreme Court on what will probably be a scorching summer day in 2014 when the Supreme Court will reveal its verdict. Signs will wave: “We are the 99% of Catholic women who use birth control”; “If men could get pregnant birth control would be sold in gum ball machines and be bacon flavored.” I will not mind the heat any more than the snow. But I will be extremely disappointed if my intern colleagues and my teenage daughter have to struggle for basic health care coverage ever again.