Religion has been intersecting with politics in a wide variety of ways in recent months as the GOP primaries and caucuses have heated up. Into the midst of that process, which has had plenty of religious moments, the Department of Health and Human Services made a ruling on coverage for contraception, making it mandatory that private health insurance should offer w/o co-pay contraceptives. An exception was made for religious communities, but not for church-related institutions, the majority of whose employees were not of that faith. That was later amended so that the institutions wouldn't pay for it, but the insurers would offer it as a separate item. It calmed some of the debate, but the Bishops of the Catholic Church said no and folks in Congress and in other government venues got into the debate, claiming this was an infringement on religious liberty. Some went so far as to call it a "war on religion" by the Obama Administration.
I have had a very difficult time seeing this as a matter of religious liberty. It is, in my mind, a matter of medical coverage that a majority of American women make use of, and therefore it's appropriate that it's covered. That an employer, religiously affiliated or not can decide what coverages to allow seems problematic, especially when the majority of the employees don't share that faith tradition.
To me this has been a question of civil rights, not religion. And it seems that those most affected -- women -- have been allowed the least amount of opportunity to address the issue.
Consider the Republican-led House Oversight Committee's "hearing" on the issue. The panel, to which the Democrats were not allowed to contribute panelists to, included only conservative, male, religious leaders. The second panel, had two women, but they were outnumbered by quite a bit. The panel tried to make this about religious liberty without hearing from those who saw it as a matter of women's health.
Baptist ethicist David Gushee has offered what is to me a very wise and balanced response to this debate. In an essay on the topic published by the Associated Baptist Press he writes:
The Right is going wrong in dismissing the legitimate public-health concern related to women’s access to contraception. While I believe their concerns about the Plan B morning-after pill are more legitimate, they are irresponsible to project a “war on religion” from the White House – rhetoric that seems aimed at replacing its current occupant.
Some of the current legislative proposals in Washington would allow any employer to deny birth control or any other coverage if they can claim that it runs counter to their beliefs. This is not really about birth control. It’s about gutting any federally mandated health-care rules.
It’s about killing not just Obama’s health-care law of 2010 but the very idea of federal regulations on private health-care plans. If successful, such laws would do cruel harm to women and would undoubtedly increase the number of both abortions and out of wedlock births.
My concern is the way in which women are being treated and being dismissed as legitimate contributors to the conversation. One of the people that the Democrats wanted to put on the panel is Sarah Fluke, a Georgetown University Law student who sought to tell how a fellow student was denied access to expensive contraceptives that were needed for a health issue separate from preventing pregnancy, but they're not covered and she can't afford them.
Jumping into this debate is the ever incendiary and generally disgusting Rush Limbaugh, who has proceded to call her a slut and a prostitute and suggested that if she wanted the government to provide contraception she should put up porn movies of herself. Such behavior is not just outlandish, it is disgusting, repugnant, and demeaning to women. He needs to be repudiated, but not just repudiated, those who profit from his vileness need to stop supporting him. We need to say no to him and others like him who pollute the airwaves and destroy any attempt at having civil conversations. Republican political leaders have stepped back gingerly from Limbaugh, but don't seem willing to sever the links.
This episode follows on some rather misogynistic statements made by evangelical pastors Mark Driscoll and John Piper. Their comments remind us that women still do not have equality in much of the American Christian church. Ordination of women remains a minority position in the world today, and their voices and concerns remain marginalized. Why is this? Some people benefit from it!
So, back to the contraception debate. I think it's important that we hear from women. It's important to hear why contraception might be an important part of their health care, beyond mere prevention of pregnancy, but not excluding it either. Some have suggested condoms -- they're cheap -- but they don't allow a woman to have control over whether or not she desires to be pregnant. And I won't go too far with the issue of procreative sex, except to say -- I don't think that most married couples today want to limit sex to having babies.
My point that I want to make at the end is offer a reminder. Most of the decisions that are being made regarding birth control and health care are being made by men. That should give us pause. As for a war on religion -- if so it's a pretty minor one!