The Religious Fight Against Birth Control

While I am normally supportive of dialogue around any and all issues, I have a hard time understanding why we even need to have a debate about the necessity of birth control. The recent debate has been about a provision in the Affordable Care Act that would require all health insurance plans to offer free birth control. Many religiously affiliated individuals and institutions - mostly conservative - are speaking out against this rule as an infringement on their freedom of religion.

Photo courtesy of "brains the head"

However, religious institutions are not actually being required to pay for birth control directly. They are being required to buy insurance plans that cover birth control. This debate has been framed in a way that makes it inaccurately sound as if religious institutions have to make a direct payment to the pharmacy where a woman is picking up her prescription. When, in fact, they only have to provide plans which cover this form of preventative medicine. A medicine that is essential to women’s health and is often used for health reasons beyond preventing pregnancy.

Many people are arguing that the government cannot force religious institutions to do something against their religious beliefs. While I agree that no one should be forced to do something against his or her beliefs, I don’t believe that is happening in this case. No one is being forced to take any birth control against her will. Institutions are just being asked to make sure birth control is included and accessible through the plans they offer employees — employees that may, or may not, share the same religious beliefs as their employers and may, or may not, want to follow them. Furthermore, one person’s freedom to practice their religion shouldn’t be allowed to infringe on the rights of others.

Image courtesy of jugler del zipa

Regardless of the technicalities of what institutions are being asked to pay, I do not think it is fair to withhold health coverage based on specific religious beliefs. Many religions forbid individuals from consuming things like cigarettes, but it is on the individual to either follow or disobey such rules. Religious groups that employee people must legally pay their employees money. The employee then can use this money to purchase cigarettes. That does not mean that the law is forcing religious institutions to pay for people’s cigarettes. And just like it is not an employer’s business what an employee does with the money he/she earns, it is also not an employer’s business what health benefits an employee does or doesn’t use.

Additionally, without birth control being easily accessible and affordable, poor women won’t have access to contraceptives, and that lack of access will probably lead to more unwanted pregnancies. Those pregnancies will most likely either result in more abortions or more children being raised by parents that are not ready to raise them. These parents are likely to struggle financially while raising their children; if they can’t afford birth control, they probably can’t afford to raise a child either. This will just continue to perpetuate the cycle of poverty for these families.

I know reproductive rights are traditionally framed as women’s issues, but let’s not forget that these unwanted pregnancies affect men, families, communities, and the overall country as well. This should be of concern to everyone, regardless of one’s gender or financial ability to purchase birth control.

Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Photo courtesy of Lynceus

Recent debate over women’s reproductive rights has not focused only on birth control. There have been many new laws and discussions around abortion as well. While I would like to believe that many people are outraged really just because issues such as abortion and birth control conflict with their strongly-held beliefs, I can’t help but believe that at least some, if not the majority, of this conversation is a cover-up for men and religious institutions to continue denying women their rights and independence. Whether conscious or sub-conscious, the goal seems to be a continuation of patriarchal control and making women submissive. For many women, this image of the all-male panel appearing to decide the fate of contraception coverage last week spoke volumes. No women (including religious women) were invited, and women that tried were not allowed, to testify before this congressional committee under the excuse of it being about religious freedom rather than women’s rights. I can’t imagine any clearer evidence of a patriarchal system trying to shut women up.

The all-male panel.