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

Contraception and crucifixWhen 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?


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Subscribe to her articles at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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4 Responses to Why Religious Leaders are Speaking Up in Support of Universal Contraceptive Access

  1. ” “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.

    This quote reminded of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, when he banned abortion and contraceptives. From ABC 20/20:

    “The result was a proliferation of babies in overcrowded inhumane institutions. In one orphanage 20/20 visited in 1990, babies were stacked on the shelves of a cart like loaves of bread.”

    Should the Supreme Court determine that corporations are people of faith, then their next move will be to lobby for the banning of abortions and modern contraceptives. This isn’t about their conscience or pro-life. It’s about controlling women. Hobby Lobby imports most of the products they sell from China. From The Guardian:

    “At least 13 millions abortions are carried out each year in China. The statistics also do not take into account the 10 million pills to induce abortion sold every year in the country.”

    Including contraception, it states:
    “The Chinese government says these family planning controls have prevented an additional 400 million births. There are about 20 million births in the country each year.”

    Thank you for the article. Let’s hope the SCOTUS can see the bigger picture and make the right decision for the well being of women, children, families, society and the planet.


    • DocAtheist says:

      You make a huge point: Hobby Lobby has no apparent sense of religious guilt over the millions of abortions carried out on/by the Chinese women who manufacture the products they buy and sell. How dare they claim to have a care about the American women working for them?


  2. Allan Avery says:

    A a meeting of the University UU church’s “Humanist” Chapter last evening, (a small and varying group) it’s group’s President Jeanette Merki (who’s an old friend) referred to this Post. The topic of the evening (my version): Secular Humanism – Religious Humanism – The same? The Concensus: Pretty much. Those there who deemed themselves Religious generally see the “Higher Power” as Nature. (During which discussion, of course, I reiterated my “Tentative” Atheist/Science Base mantra. “Unless and until the Pure Scientists detect an addition to the known Universal Natural entities, (forces, fields, particles, waves, all forms of radiation), let’s just assume a rational “God-like” entity would expect us, with our evolved big brain, to accept our own collective responsibility for survival. And would not likely hold out a Heaven-like reward, just for a some of us, for our collective failure to do so.”) During the discussion it was also suggested that, If you’re open to “Blogs,” make it this one: Away Point. Check it out if you don’t already subscribe.


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