Following President Obama’s re-election, the HHS mandate requiring most religious institutions to provide health insurance that covers “free” contraception, sterilization, and morning- and week-after pills is still on the books. Despite the strong outcry against the mandate, the Obama presidential campaign continued to ratchet up the pressure on religious conscientious objectors during the summer and fall of 2012.
HHS Secretary Sebelius’s “war on women” motif was carried seamlessly into campaign advertisements for Obama’s re-election. Female voters in targeted states were treated to ads exhorting them to “Vote like your lady parts depend on it. Because they kinda do.”
Most revealing was a TV ad featuring actress Lena Dunham, who stars in a show about the sex lives of unmarried women. Comparing voting for Obama to losing one’s virginity, she closes with the suggestion that it’s “super uncool to be out and about and someone says, ‘Did you…’ and you say ‘No I wasn’t ready.’” She adds, “Before I was a girl, now I was a woman.” Voting for Obama, apparently, is akin to great sex.
The result is an administration—led by men, but fronted by women—blatantly in favor of the view that to be “for women” (and to be super cool), you should support casual sex and the free contraception that facilitates it. The Obama campaign’s real message about the HHS mandate translates as follows: If you object to coercing religious institutions into sponsoring free contraception, you are no friend to women.
An Alliance Against Religious Freedom
This is an unprecedented type of campaign against religious liberty in the United States. It is characterized by a formidable alliance, bolstered by money, power, and market branding, between the White House and so-called “women’s advocates,” in particular Planned Parenthood. Despite emerging legal questions about Medicaid fraud, and its unapologetic cheerleading for legal abortion, Planned Parenthood remains a powerful brand as a “women’s advocate.” Obama frequently associates himself with it by name.
Little surprise that Planned Parenthood receives hundreds of millions of dollars from federal and state governments; in 2009-2010, such grants and reimbursements totaled nearly $475 million.
The Obama administration has also deployed its Department of Justice (or withheld Medicaid payments) to states whose legislatures have re-directed their family planning funds away from local Planned Parenthoods in favor of providers without an abortion connection. Returning the favor, Planned Parenthood spent $15 million pushing for Obama’s re-election.
Any American citizen or institution that visibly opposes this powerful alliance might realistically worry about its future. This is new for Christians in America. In decades past, only the most extremist abortion interest groups—e.g., Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights Action League—visibly denounced the beliefs and practices of Christian churches regarding human sexuality, marriage, and family. But today, these groups command the prime-time podium at the Democratic National Convention, and count the president of the United States as their closest political ally.
Christianity’s Challenge to the Alliance
Faced with this alignment, religious citizens and institutions cannot win protection of their freedom merely by petitioning the government for wider “exemptions” from laws the government has headlined as “progress toward women’s equality.” This is definitely not a good place for Christians to be. In this situation, it is not even enough to win lawsuits (as I suspect the plaintiffs ultimately will) that require the government, under either or both the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to grant larger exemptions. This is necessary but not sufficient.
Instead, for the good of women and the good of society, Christians must engage in a hard conversation: what does women’s freedom truly include? Christian citizens, Catholics in particular, must explain why their witness on contraception contributes to, and doesn’t derogate, women’s long-term flourishing. These conversations must certainly deal with the world as it is—culturally, politically—but can never forget to speak of the world as it ought to be, the world parents hope to leave to their daughters and sons.
Christian churches need to be frank about what they are proposing concerning sex, parenting, and marriage. They shouldn’t hide the ball; that rightly infuriates people. And they should especially remember those people who often slip through the cracks, who are forgotten or ignored by the alliance of Planned Parenthood and the federal government: our poorest and least educated fellow citizens who suffer the most from the loss of a healthy marriage culture.
In this spirit, I propose that we consider the positions of the government and of the Catholic Church (which has the most developed literature) on contraception, with a practical eye for how to persuade our political leaders and fellow citizens that, even as the government keeps providing contraception through its own programs, it should allow religious witness on contraception to live, lighting a different path that some may wish to follow.
While the Catholic position on contraception is primarily considered from this point forward, it should be noted that many Evangelical Protestants have come to respect, admire, and embrace Catholic concerns and even convictions respecting a contraceptive mentality.
The Planned Parenthood-Government Case for Contraception
Planned Parenthood and the government argue for larger and more aggressive birth control programs, even at the expense of religious freedom, along the following lines: Contraception can prevent pregnancy, and women need and want to avoid pregnancy for many years of their lives. Having a child “changes everything.” Your life (your heart, your schedule, your bank account, etc.) is now in someone else’s hands. Pregnancy itself, in fact, can in some instances risk a woman’s health, or interfere with her long-term personal, professional, and financial goals.
Children impact women’s life course uniquely. One can argue endlessly about whether this is due to women’s biochemical makeup, or whether it is socially constructed, but the bottom line is that unmarried mothers take custody of the children in over 81 percent of cases. And mothers are far more likely than fathers to adjust (or want to adjust) their work schedules to allow for more time with their children. Even if a woman chooses abortion over birth, it is she who will bear the lion’s share of abortion’s physical, emotional, and spiritual costs, not the father.
Add to this the fact that today’s women become sexually active in their late teens or early twenties, but do not marry until their late twenties. Even after they marry, American women do not generally want more than two children. Consequently, women are sexually active for many years, but hoping to avoid pregnancy.
In sum, when it comes to contraception’s cost and availability, considering how crucial is the difference between being pregnant and not being pregnant, between mothering and not mothering—whether because abortion is hard, or because raising a child is a lifelong project—easy access to low-cost contraception seems a basic necessity.
Reasonably Refuting the Case for Contraception
Confronted by this chain of thought, how does any person or entity, religious or not, begin to suggest that it’s reasonable to oppose contraception, and instead promote sexual restraint; stable, lasting marriages; and a more generous disposition toward having children? This three-part series will attempt to outline a response.
A preliminary note: As regards “contraceptive” drugs and devices that really act to destroy an already-formed embryo (morning- and week-after pills, depending upon the woman’s cycle), religious institutions are not likely, relatively speaking, to have trouble gaining public support for their conscientious objection. This could change in the future, but at the present time, people still generally draw a moral line between preventing conception and destroying an already-conceived life. There is even an easy feminist case for doing so. Consider the oft-repeated admonition of feminist author Germaine Greer in her book The Whole Woman: “Whether you feel that the creation and wastage of so many embryos is an important issue or not, you must see that the cynical deception of millions of women by selling abortifacients as if they were contraceptives is incompatible with the respect due to women as human beings.”
Educating about the potential post-conception abortion-effects of morning and week-after drugs is vital. The harder task, however, is objecting to the provision of contraception itself, and proposing in its place another disposition toward sex and children. How to make the case before an audience who would not begin to engage the intellectual and spiritual dimensions of the issue revealed even in brilliantly executed (not to mention prescient) documents such as Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body? Both sources have enough intellectual firepower to reach beyond the faithful to the skeptical, but most citizens are unlikely, ever, to read them.
How to make the case in a context where objections to widespread contraception have no serious purchase on either political party? (I refer to past political support for government-promoted, large-scale contraception programs, not legal access to contraception. No church seeks a legal ban upon contraception, which has been declared a constitutional right since Griswold v. Connecticut.) It should be remembered that Republican president George H.W. Bush was crowned “rubbers Bush” by his colleagues in Congress for his untiring interest in reducing poverty through government-sponsored birth-control programs, and that Richard Nixon’s administration famously produced the National Security Study Memorandum 200, which recommended similar programs as part of US national security strategy.
Democrats’ support for massive contraceptive programs today, both at home and abroad, and even at the cost of religious freedom, is different for the most part only in its insistence that its goal is first, and only, a “woman’s rights” agenda, not a population or national security agenda.
Still, even in the face of such obstacles, there are good reasons to hope that the public isn’t totally deaf to a new way of thinking about women’s freedom as regards human sexuality and contraception.
First, the churches are no longer in the position of making a “theoretical/what might happen” argument. The nation now has both lived experience, and data amassed, over the last fifty years of the so-called sexual revolution. Dissatisfaction has surfaced. It is a stunning (and comforting) reality that so long after its origins, this revolution still attracts so much criticism.
Second, women on both sides of the argument agree that women’s equality and flourishing are necessary, even while they disagree on how to achieve these goals. We have known this to be true in principle, but today it has become increasingly obvious in fact. Many of the most ardent opponents of the HHS mandate and of the sexual revolution’s effects are women.
Consider, for example, the eminent historian Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s Feminism is Not the Story of My Life and Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill. Think of the nine female scholars, lawyers, and doctors who have written in my new volume Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves and the more than 36,000 women who have signed the open letter “Women Speak for Themselves,” openly challenging the administration’s choice to burden religious freedom for the sake of a false conception of female freedom. (I started the petition with a friend, Kim Daniels; it spread wildly beyond the three dozen women we initially contacted.)
In light of these signs of hope, as well as the previously described obstacles, how does one make a plausible case against axiomatically linking contraception with women’s freedom? That will be the topic of my next two essays.
Helen Alvaré is associate professor at George Mason University School of Law and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute.