I’ve stayed away politics in this forum. Politics are messy and divisive, and while mine are clear to anyone who drives by my house in an election season and suspected by those who read my bumper stickers, I like to leave them aside here, preferring to speak to the common ground we humans share. As always, my goal is respectful conversation, not aggressive condemnation or coercive conversion. Comments which follow that goal are welcome.
Contraception. Women’s rights. Religious freedom. Compromises. Conscience. The rhetoric of last few weeks have left me with a sick feeling no amount of acid reducer can remedy. Whichever side of the debate is yours, you likely have felt some angst over this drama played out by men (and they are almost all men) in power in church or state, or who want to be in power.
As with many issues of human rights and liberties, this one is all in the framing and lenses. The Catholic Bishops claim religious freedom as their basis of objecting to providing full access to women’s health benefits, including access to contraception, at Catholic institutions employing those of other faiths. The Catholic Church holds “intrinsically wrong to use contraception to prevent new human beings from coming into existence” (Catholic Answers), a response that some evangelical Christians also espouse but with perhaps different language. Violation of conscience is cited as well — funding the means for a woman to access contraception violates their beliefs.
On the other side are women and men of many religious and nonreligious traditions, including many Catholics, who frame the issue as one of human rights, often specifically women’s rights. This side plays the freedom of religion card, too, although from the stance that one should be free from being bound to the beliefs of the religions of others.
Different frames on the same issue make for cross-talk and rhetoric that moves us nowhere but further apart. Do we even have to agree? No, but agreeing on language would do us a lot of good. Even acknowledging that we’re all mucked up in the language would be a start. We owe it to each other and to our nation to listen carefully, not to the rhetoric but to the fears, values, and beliefs that are lost in the rhetoric. We need to listen to ourselves as well, watching our arguments for logical flaws and religious (or anti-religious) bias. We need to listen with open minds and hearts, remembering that the “other” is nota baby-killer or a religious nut-job or an unpatriotic upstart but a human being with concerns that run deep, just as our own do.
Over the past few months, I’ve worked to expand my reading on the issues that polarize. Rather than limit my news diet to what agrees with my general train of thought, I’ve read what those on the other side say. I try to keep an open mind, but it’s hard. I can think of few issues that challenge me more to see from the other side than this one, and for many reasons.
Access to birth control — affordable, reliable birth control — supports women and families. Sex is going to happen, in and out of marriage, with and without the desire to create new life. It will happen between consenting adults who love and respect each other and who don’t share the view of the Catholic church that the acceptance of procreation required for sexual relations. It’s going to happen in less consenting situations between adults who may be married but may not be share all the respect a relationship should have. Making birth control less available won’t change who has sex. It will increase the number of pregnancies which, if history and studies world-wide studies indicate, will increase the number of abortions (legal or not). Not everyone wants a large family. Not everyone can support the larger numbers of children emotionally or financially. Domestic violence increases during pregnancy and the postpartum period, making birth control a safety net for many women. Birth control is pro-life, pro-women, and pro-family.
Restricting insurance benefits influences more than the employees of a given institution. Removing birth control benefits for employees removes those benefits for rest of the family. While few parent relish the thought of their child becoming pregnant before that child is ready to be a parent, the reality is that it happens. It happens to Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, and atheist children. Some studies show the rates of teen pregnancy are actually higher in those with conservative religious beliefs, a correlation suspected to be related to higher contraceptive rates. Like it or not, teens and young (unmarried) adults have sex, and women under age 25 (many whom are often covered by their parent’s insurance) account for half of all abortions in the US. Want to decrease that number? Make birth control accessible.
The religious beliefs of the employer need not be the ones of the employee. Woe to the employee who, after an accident or serious surgery, needs a whole blood transfusion but works for a hospital owned by a Jehovah’s Witness. Ridiculous example? Not if religions continue to be able to opt their employees out of medical care simply because it is in disagreement with the employer’s faith. It’s a slippery slope, and this battle over contraceptive coverage is the first push down the hill of a long and potentially dangerous ride. (Universal health coverage could alleviate future conundrums of this sort while supporting the lives of all humans. I’ll leave more on that for another day.)
My religious beliefs are just that: my religious beliefs. They inform my way of living in the world, including how I spend my money, how I vote, and where I choose to worship. My beliefs do not — nor should they ever — inform others of the same. As a Unitarian Universalist, I embrace the freedom of each person to search for truth and meaning, and as an American, I expect the separation of church and state to protect me from the confines of the beliefs of others. Beyond the public realm (and Catholic hospitals and Universities are NOT beyond that, given they accept government funds), more boundary blurring is bound to happen. But these schools and hospitals are firmly within the public world, where church and state are firmly separated for reasons our Founding Fathers enumerated within far beyond the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Denying contraceptive coverage is but the latest in a string of attempts to make the faith of some binding for the masses. Attempts to legislate religious beliefs wander through world and American history, and the results are almost never pretty. There is no reason to think this blurring of private and political will not continue. Why this happens is just as important as that it happens, and respectful dialogue is the route to respectful thoughts and actions as well as to the creative solutions that can assure all of us continue to enjoy the religious freedoms our nation promises.
Addendum (2/22/12): As a matter of clarity, I’m advocating for insurance benefits for contraception, not free contraception. It’s status should not be above and beyond other medications and treatments, but it should have parity for the consumer, subject to copays as other medications are.