Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Why Religious Feminists Should Support Contraceptive Rights - Part 1

This post will also appear in Go Girl Magazine on Friday, as well as Part 2, which will appear on Saturday.

If you’re like me, you probably feel like this national debate over contraceptives is some bizarre throwback to the dark ages (or, as Stephen Colbert put it – why not start protesting Elvis’s pelvis-thrusting influence on teens?). And if you’re like me, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. Heaven knows, I wish this debate would just go away and that states would stop passing laws that allow employers to pry into female employees’ medical records and sex lives.

But we can’t ignore this debate, because states are still passing misogynistic bills that violate women’s rights to health and privacy – and because they’re doing it in the name of religious liberty, I feel it’s only right for the religious feminists of the United States to speak up. Already fellow Go Girl Erica is promoting a knitted vagina movement - the idea being that male legislators will stay out of our vaginas if they receive a knitted vagina of their very own. As a Catholic feminist, Erica represents just one of many people who want religious liberty and women’s health – not second class citizenship for women, with religious tyranny for Christian fundamentalists. Think my rhetoric is hyperbolic? Well, feministe has a great run-down of some recent anti-women legislation, including Georgia's efforts at forcing women to deliver still-born babies (justified by comparing women to livestock), Tennessee's efforts at depriving doctors and patients of medical privacy, and a whole slew of states passing ultrasound laws.

As a Christian feminist, I too want to respond to these attacks on women's rights, but I’m coming from a different perspective than a lot of feminists. You see, I’m a tad old-fashioned when it comes to sexuality. I don’t believe anyone should engage in sexual relations before marriage (though I'm not about to judge if that's your decision), and I consider pornography to be universally damaging to all who view or participate in it. I don’t believe that abortion is a good thing – though I support a woman’s access to abortion, particularly during the first trimester and at any time when the pregnancy puts her at peril. I’ve held these relatively old-fashioned beliefs my entire life, and as a result of not being married, I’m a 26-year-old virgin. The most I’ve ever done with a boy is kiss. And that’s something I’m proud of, because it’s a result of my decision not to have sex outside of marriage.

And yet, despite those strong beliefs on my part, I want this anti-women’s-rights legislation to stop, and I want more women to actively oppose these measures. I mean, come on – we’re more than half the population. We have the voting clout to make a serious difference where this legislation is concerned. So let explain why contraceptive rights do not violate the rights of religious organizations.

First off, we have to step back and examine the rhetoric of “This isn’t about contraceptives; this is about religious freedom” and ask, religious freedom for whom? America has a long history of proclaiming the ideal of religious liberty, all while denying that liberty to others. From Puritans who burned “witches” and cast out any who belonged to other Christian sects, to Southern plantation owners who forced slaves to leave their religion in Africa, to nineteenth century Americans who tortured, robbed and eventually murdered the founder of my faith, to contemporary Americans who didn’t want a Muslim community center anywhere near ground zero - we don’t have a perfect track record in the area of religious liberty. Especially not when the religion in question is a minority, either in our community or in the nation at large.

And differing moral beliefs are at the center of this debate about contraceptives as a form of medicine. Differing beliefs about family planning are driving much of this debate, as well as differing beliefs about the place of sex in a person’s life. Take, for instance, Sandra Fluke’s testimony in support of contraceptives (see video above), in which Fluke proclaims that access to sex is a right. Fluke also outlines all the reasons why women may need the pill even if they’re not having sex, and I am aware that Fluke’s statement could be problematic out of context – after all, Fluke is likely to support that “right” only insofar as the sexual partner is willing. But I want to point to this assertion that sex is a right, because that view is rooted in belief. I can’t know whether that belief is rooted in a particular religion, but Fluke clearly believes that sexuality should be a personal decision, not one dictated by the government or by an employer or by an insurance agent who somehow thinks denying birth control is a good way to cut costs.

But Fluke isn’t alone in holding differing moral beliefs about sexuality. I, for one, believe that sex (between a married couple) is a sacred union that is about much, much more than having kids. And I believe that adults who are having sex have every right to take measures to prevent that sexual act from resulting in pregnancy. I also believe that kids should be born into homes where their parents welcome them as an addition to the home, and as someone who wants to cut down on the number of abortions that occur because of unplanned pregnancies, I think parents using contraceptives is a good decision for kids. And sure, you can make the argument that parents can simply abstain from sex during the woman’s most fertile times of the month – but a) that’s still a way to have sex without getting pregnant, b) that method is much less reliable, and c) it seems awfully cruel to women to say that we only get to have sex during the times of the month when we want it the least. Not to mention, how is it an employer’s business to dictate what times of the month a woman is allowed to have sex if she doesn’t want to get pregnant?

The fact of the matter is, allowing employers to determine - based on morality - what medical options (prescribed by a doctor) an insurance company is allowed to provide does not protect the religious liberty of the individual employee.

Saturday: more on why birth control rights do not violate economic or religious liberty.


  1. So, I'm all for universal law requiring birth control access for all women, but am I wrong to think that contraceptives shouldn't be free for everyone?

    For example, if I can pay for it and the additional spending doesn't cripple my ability to lead an enjoyable, balanced life, then shouldn't I pay for it?

    I mean, let's say a billionaire struts in after these sorts of laws are introduced and picks up a few dozen contraceptives for free...I feel like that's just wrong and unnecessarily burdening others. I think that the access should be free for those who can't pay and come at a cost for those who can, and especially those who can easily.

    What do you think Em?

    I really like this page by the way! I didn't know you were part of this site.

    -Tall Mark

  2. Tall Mark, I agree that it wouldn't make much sense to simply make it free to everyone at the taxpayers' expense - and in fact, I respond to some of that concern in part 2. But since you bring it up now, one of the reasons I don't see a problem with requiring insurance companies to cover it is that the money is still coming from the premiums, and in some cases you have women who are getting unsubsidized insurance, and it's only an affiliated organization's religious conviction that stops the insurance company from wanting to cover the contraceptives. So, in terms of who's footing the bill, it's not the taxpayer - it's either the individual (through premiums), or the insurance company. And when the insurance company pays for it, it's really an investment since contraceptives are preventative.

  3. Yes, when the employer covers a good portion of the premium, it complicates the question. But that portion they cover is usually part of what a prospective employee looks for in a salary (kinda making it their money), and religiously affiliated organizations don't have to directly pay for the birth control coverage even with Obama's proposed legislation.