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Why Religious Leaders Are Speaking Up in Support of Universal Contraceptive Access

In today’s context of higher population density, resource scarcity and revolutionary contraceptive options, a “let go and let God” approach to family planning no longer promotes the wellbeing of children and families.

(Image: Oral contraceptive pills via Shutterstock)

When the Supreme Court took up the Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods cases on March 25, attorneys for the business owners argued that their religious freedom (and that of the corporations!) is being violated by the Obamacare contraceptive mandate. But not all religious leaders agree. In fact, 47 clergy including five current or former presidents of national denominations have released a joint statement arguing that the most significant religious freedom question at issue in the Supreme Court case is the freedom of the individual employees.

As religious leaders, we support universal access to contraception. We believe that all persons should be free to make personal decisions about their reproductive lives, their health and the health of their families that are informed by their culture, faith tradition, religious beliefs, conscience, and community. . . . Including contraceptives as a covered service does not require anyone to use it; excluding contraceptive coverage for those who choose to plan and space their families with modern methods of birth control will effectively translate into coercive childbearing for many.

Two groups of Jewish leaders, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Women of Reform Judaism signed onto the statement, as did the group Muslims for Progressive Values. In a separate action, a group representing more than 2000 Catholic sisters, the National Coalition of American Nuns, also has gone public in opposition to the bishops and in support of women who want to manage their own lives and families: “Women should not be singled out by any organization or group through its refusal to insure a woman’s reproductive needs.” Seizing on the Hobby Lobby name, an interfaith group called Faith Aloud is helping to organize rallies with the tag line, “Hey Boss, get a new hobby!”

Statements like these remind us that the fight over contraceptive access isn’t just a conflict between religion and secularism or even between religion and civil society. It is also a debate between religious believers themselves, because devout believers are not in agreement about the will of God or the highest moral good. At one extreme is the Quiverfull/Vatican stance that women should accept whatever babies God gives them (after having sex whenever their husbands want it). At the other end of the spectrum are assertions like this one: “The failure of any sect to support the benefits to humanity that could be obtained through the use of contraceptive technology is blasphemy.”

There are good historical reasons that conservative religion encourages passive acceptance of childbearing. During the Axial Age, when today’s global religions emerged, men and women had few options for limiting pregnancy. They did, however, have a choice about whether they welcomed children into the world. Under those conditions, religious beliefs were optimized to ensure that babies came into stable loving families who would cherish them. Social structures developed in which men essentially owned women and controlled their sexuality, as they do in the Bible and Koran. This way, women produced purebred offspring of known lineage, and the men then took care of their own. All of space in the Bible occupied by geneologies reminds us how important pure bloodlines were at the time.

But in today’s context of higher population density, resource scarcity and revolutionary contraceptive options, a “let go and let God” approach to family planning no longer promotes the wellbeing of children and families. We now have very good international evidence that giving couples the means to delay, space and limit childbearing leads to greater maternal and child health, greater family prosperity, and more educated prosperous communities.

For this reason, the United Nations has declared access to family planning a fundamental human right. In the words of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, “Not only does the ability for a couple to choose when and how many children to have help lift nations out of poverty, but it is also one of the most effective means of empowering women. Women who use contraception are generally healthier, better educated, more empowered in their households and communities and more economically productive.”

Faith leaders who are grounded more in compassion than tradition have taken notice.

In the decades since modern contraception emerged, many Christian denominations have argued that thoughtful, intentional childbearing is a spiritual good and that justice demands that this opportunity should be available to poor families as it is to the rich. Reverend Harry Knox, Director of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, sees the call for reproductive justice as part of the “prophetic voice” in Judaism and Christianity, a responsibility to speak out on behalf of the poor and downtrodden.

Social justice requires equality of access, which is why Knox and others like him see a strong contraceptive mandate as critical. Poor working women who are least able to afford an unintended pregnancy are also those least able to afford supplemental insurance. They also may be least aware of emerging medical options, like top tier long acting contraceptives, if the Hobby Lobby case forces doctors to omit family planning discussions from primary care visits.

Religious leaders and ordinary believers who take the position that family planning is a moral good, don’t see this as some watered down version of faith. Rather, it goes to the very core of their spiritual values. As Reverend Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute put it, “It is precisely because as faith leaders we know that life is sacred, that we believe that every woman must be able to plan her pregnancies intentionally without governmental interference and without her employer in her bedroom.”

Balancing American religious freedoms against each other (and against civic duties) has been a difficult process since our country was first founded. This is true in part because religions arouse moral emotions and create obligations, some of which believers can feel compelled to impose on others. In all likelihood the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods feel a genuine, God-given responsibility to control how employees use their medical benefits. This means that regardless of what the Supreme Court decides, someone’s sincerely held and spiritually motivated objectives will be thwarted. In the end, the question before the court is this: When it comes to childbearing whose freedom counts the most?

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