The Contraception Wars | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

The Contraception Wars


JFP Editor Donna Ladd

Most of you have surely heard by now that former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is blaming his resounding loss on "gifts" that President Obama offered young voters, African Americans and Latinos. "In each case they were very generous in what they gave to those groups," Romney told donors in a conference call after the election.

Romney's offensive "gifts" remark, which harks back to his elitist, privileged "47 percent" gaffe during the campaign, was slammed by about everyone, including many prominent Republicans who are starting to see the demographics on the wall and realizing that they're not going to win class and anti-women wars disguised as campaigns. Newt Gingrich even called it "nuts."

The "gifts" remarks hit on an issue I've been stewing about for a while: the offensive campaign against health-insurance coverage of birth control for women pushed by a variety of conservatives from Rick Santorum to Paul Ryan to Hobby Lobby owners to Catholic bishops to Rush Limbaugh.

There's been a lot of dishonest "FUD"--fear, uncertainty and doubt--spread over the Obama administration's rule to keep insurance companies from denying coverage for contraception. His opponents like to couch this question in a misleading way. The debate, they tell us, is all about the religious freedom of employers who must "provide" the contraception for their employees.

To hear the very loud opponents of this "mandate" tell it, the federal government is making business owners go into the contraception business. Suddenly, every business is also a doctor's office and a pharmacy.

An Oct. 31 press release from Hobby Lobby said it is "suing to halt enforcement of the HHS mandate, which forces Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., a Christian-owned-and-operated business, to provide the abortion-inducing drugs, the 'morning after pill' and 'week after pill," in violation of their deeply held religious beliefs...."

This release said nothing about what the "mandate" really does: Tell companies they cannot force their views on their employees by denying them access to contraception. The law is not telling anyone they have to use birth control; it says that insurance companies and businesses cannot deny coverage based on personal religious views.

The Catholic Church has long believed that any birth control is sinful. "It's a philosophical tradition known as natural law," Jim Laine, the Catholic director of the religious studies program at Macalester College in Minnesota, told a local CBS affiliate. "Natural law suggests any conjugal act, any sexual act, should be open to the transmission of life." The Church has long singled out the Pill as a problem because it separates the act of sex from procreation.

Many Protestants don't agree with Catholics that all contraception is a sin--they did until 1930, though--but hormonal birth control such as the pill is against many of their religious beliefs. Many believe that any contraception that decommissions a fertilized egg, or even a zygote (remember Personhood?), is a sin--thus no birth-control pills or morning-after pill (even in the case of rape or incest). Some Protestants still agree with Catholic doctrine that any attempt to stop pregnancy violates God's natural law.

I respect all those views. Protestants, Catholics and everyone else has the right to decide what, if any, contraception, violates their religious beliefs, and then to not use it. They can decide how many children they wish to have and how to raise them to believe. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives citizens the right to religious freedom, and it's a precious one.

But here's the thing: The First Amendment also gives individual employees the right to make these decisions for themselves, to decide whether or not the Pill violates their religious beliefs. They have no fewer rights than their employers. And the other religion clause in the First Amendment makes it clear that the government cannot "establish" anyone's particular religion as the law of the land that rules the rest of us. If they could, none of us would have religious freedom. I just love the checks-and-balances brilliance of the First Amendment. One clause keeps the other one honest even as many people want their religion to trump all the others.

A major role for the federal government is to ensure that individual citizens' constitutional rights are not violated. Employers cannot be allowed to limit their employees' access to health care, including contraception. They can claim all they want that they are trying to protect their own religious freedom when, in fact, they are attempting to push it on others. This is not acceptable, and the administration wisely made that clear.

But there is another crazy-maker in this twisted debate. I own a business, and we provide our full- and part-time employees access to a group health insurance plan. We pay half the premium. But it would be sheer hubris for us to argue that we are providing a "gift" to them by having a health-care plan. It is part of what we offer them to work here.

Employees work for their health insurance, and employers do not have the right to insert ourselves between employees and their doctors. It's none of our business. We should not even know what they do with their health insurance, and only those wishing to impose their beliefs on those who work for them would argue that they should. Employers don't ask employees for an accounting of how they spend their paychecks, and they have the right to use the money we "give" them to pay for birth control or even abortion services. And if they use their paychecks for contraception, that doesn't mean we are providing those services, either.

It's not the 19th century: We do not own the people who work for us.

Not to mention, the imposition of employer religious beliefs on contraception access can hurt employees' health, or even hasten their deaths. Doctors prescribe the pill for medical reasons ranging from helping with excruciating menstrual cramps, to migraine relief, to treatment of endometriosis (which, ironically, can cause infertility if left untreated), ovarian cysts and fibroids.

A Cancer Research UK study found that the pill had prevented at least 100,000 deaths from ovarian cancer and that ovarian cancer rates for women under 75 are 13 percent lower than if oral contraceptives had not been available.

In fact, according to the Guttmacher Institute, only 42 percent of women who take the pill use it for only contraception reasons, and one-third of teen users rely on it exclusively for medical purposes. And 762,000 women who use the pill have never had sex, while 14 percent of pill users--1.5 million women--use it exclusively for non-contraceptive reasons. It's medicine for many.

The opponents of the contraception rule want employers to prohibit employees from using their insurance to get contraception for any reason, whether health or because a woman can't afford, or does not choose, to have a child. That is wrong.

Women are not asking for a "gift" from the federal government, their employers or anyone else. We are demanding our right to make our own religious and health reasons--and be able to not have to choose between a job we love or need and using our health insurance to meet our medical and economic needs. Companies do not own our employees--even the women--and need to stop acting like they do.

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