Blurring Boundaries: Contraception and Religious Freedom

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. 


12 thoughts on “Blurring Boundaries: Contraception and Religious Freedom

  1. Republicans are against same sex marriage, birth control and abortion? Let them marry some one of the opposite sex. Let them not use contraception. Let them not abort. But let’s not let them legislate for the rest of us.

  2. Contraception is not the panacea that most people make it out to be. Since artificial contraception has been widely available and accepted what has happened to the divorce rate? What has happened to the rate of children born out of wedlock and raised with no father in the picture? Contraception changes the dynamic of the male/female intimate relationship from one of self giving and self sacrificing love to one of selfishness. The bishops are not saying that no one should have access to contraception but that those who are morally opposed should not have to pay for it. Also, one should be aware of the beliefs of an employer before accepting a job from an employer.
    Out of curiosity are there JW owned hospitals??

    • Thanks for providing a voice for the other point of view. I’ll respond point by point.

      Contraception is certainly no panacea. It is a tool, nothing more. We have a myriad of tools thanks to science that allow us to veer from the path our bodies took us hundreds of years ago. Antibiotics, anesthetics, surgical procedures, vaccines, chemotherapy, and more allow us to change the course of nature. Different people have different lines they draw as we have more and more control over our bodies. Contraception is but one example of where people disagree.

      Divorce rates in the US peaked in 1981, with the current rate significantly below that peak and in line with the increase begun in the 1890s. Long before the pill, the IUD, more frequent use of sterilization, and other modern methods, that rise was in place. During that time period, women got the vote, humans went to space, and a myriad of changes to society occurred. Correlation does not indicate causation. Yes, more children are born out of wedlock now. Marriage is on the decline. Somehow the former seems to be unlikely to be due to contraception. The latter is occurring in Europe as well, although those children tend to fare better, perhaps due to countries that do more to support individuals than the US does.

      Your position on contraception and the marriage relationships stems from your religious beliefs. That’s fine, but my beliefs are different, which doesn’t make either of our positions invalid or wrong, just different. I’d hold that if an institution is accepting public funds, their religious beliefs shouldn’t play a role in the benefits they offer (or don’t offer) their employees. That’s separation of church and state.

      I don’t agree that one should know the beliefs of one’s employer, and I don’t believe my employer has any right to know mine. Gone is the time where those questions are permissible during the interview, along with questions about a women’s intent to have children or to marry. I have no idea what the beliefs of my employers are about religion, politics, or other personal matters. It’s simply not my business, and should that information become part of the interviewing process, it could certainly lead to discrimination.

      Are their JW-owned hospitals? Not that I know of. But if opting out of insurance benefits for employees becomes acceptable on the basis of religious beliefs, be sure that JW owned businesses and those of other faiths will follow along. The ripple effect of permitting this practice could have long-ranging healthcare ramifications, far beyond choices regarding sex and birth control. Could the business owner who objects to vaccines on religious or philosophical grounds omit those from their coverage? Sure, if this is the path we choose to take.


  3. My philosophy is that once you take Viagra and all those other “male enhancement” medications out of insurance policies, then and only then can you even BEGIN the conversation about birth control. Otherwise, you just a bunch of stuffed shirts that think you’re better than the rest of us because you got God on your side.

      • Drugs for erectile dysfunction do get the nod from the Catholic church, if my research is correct, if it is used by married people with the intent to create life.

        Here’s a quote from Father Rocky Hoffman (Catholic News Agency):
        “But what we must reject is the instrumentilization of sex for pleasure. That’s a dead end and leads to isolation. The marital act always needs to be understood from the perspective of gift of self, and not a gift for self.”

        Should insurance cover it? That’s a question. Do healthy sexual relationships help strengthen a marriage or committed relationship? Certainly they can, although they are hardly the only way of doing so.

        The problem, IMO, comes when a religious group uses their faith to make decisions about medical treatments, whether they are lifestyle-oriented (like Viagra) or otherwise. Using one’s religion to make decisions about how others outside that religion may use a drug or intervention (think IVF), is the problem. The freedom for one to practice his or her religious beliefs ends where it interferes with the right of another to practice theirs, or, in this case, where it limits the personal choices of one outside of the fold, beyond what government limits.

        Now, should birth control be free to all women? I don’t think so, unless all other medicines are also free.Too many people are already making choices between their essential medications (for diabetes, blood pressure, cancer, etc) and food. Offering free contraception to all women will be a tremendous cost and certainly doesn’t seem to be the best place to spent those funds.

  4. “Drugs for erectile dysfunction do get the nod from the Catholic church, if my research is correct, if it is used by married people with the intent to create life.”

    Seriously, MacLeod, how often do you think Catholic users of viagra are still trying to be procreative?

    • I’m not attempting to defend the Catholic Church’s position, just report it.

      I’ve been a PA in family practice for 17 years, and plenty of men of reproductive age use Viagra and the like. Do they all want to procreate? I don’t ask, as it’s not my business. It certainly isn’t a verifiable issue, is it? I do know which of my patients are using the birth control pill or progesterone-containing IUD for reasons other than or in additions to contraception, although cramps and irregular bleeding are not items I can objectively verify in the office. However, as long as a woman doesn’t feel she has to have a medical reason to obtain birth control, she’s unlikely to lie in the privacy of the healthcare provider/patient relationship. When patients are honest about their symptoms and needs, they receive more comprehensive care.

      • Well, I will self-disclose that I am predisposed to question all Catholics’ pretense that they are defending their faith. This predisposition comes from a long history of the Church’s attempts at overweening control of Catholics’ and non-Catholics’ personal lives alike. I say that public-financed health insurance should cover birth control and viagra or not cover it, regardless of medical necessity. Equality for goose & gander. If this impinges on Catholics’ religiosity in any way, then that’s their problem to sort out.

  5. I, for one, would love to see a form of public-financed health care that would eliminate this question altogether. I don’t see Viagra and and birth control as parallel medications, but religion should regulate the use and coverage of neither. Religion aside, health care for all is true respect for life.

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