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Friday, February 10, 2012

Christian Families, Motherhood, and Womanhood Series, Part One: Government, Contraception, and the First Amendment

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting on what it means to be a Christian wife and mother in 21st century America.  Partly this is because I am a Christian wife and mother in 21st century America, and partly this is because I’ve been doing a lot of research on the Quiverfull movement for a novel I’m writing.  Watching the political battles unfold in the media have also contributed to this, as once again the candidates’ religious beliefs are being used to condemn, divide, and further alienate much of the electorate who seem to fall on the wrong side of something or the other.

As a result of all this reflecting, I’m going to be sharing several posts on the general subject of Christian families, motherhood, and womanhood, beginning today.  I hope you’ll stick with me, and as always I welcome your comments, whether you agree with my opinions or not, but I do ask you to keep it civil and respectful.  In return, I’m going to put considerable effort into keeping these posts as opinions rather than rants.  So without further ado, here is my Christian Families, Motherhood, and Womanhood Series, Part One:  Government, Contraception, and the First Amendment.

There has been a lot of outrage recently about the Affordable Care Act being managed by Health and Human Services (HHS).  (You can read the original press release announcing specifics of the Act here.)  Specifically the outrage is about the mandate that all employer-sponsored health insurance plans offer FDA-approved contraceptive services without cost-sharing, i.e. free of charge to the women who want them.  The Act does allow a narrow exemption for religious institutions to opt out of the contraceptive mandate, however that exemption did not originally include religious hospitals, universities, or other non-worship specific religious organizations.  At the time of this writing, the Obama Administration has indicated that it intends to recommend a compromise which would extend the exemption to those religious entities, and instead put the onus of free coverage on the insurance companies themselves, requiring them to contract with the covered individuals of exempted employers directly to provide contraceptive services for free.  (You can read the White House Fact Sheet on the compromise here.)

This article published by the National Catholic Register nicely summarizes many of the objections made not just by Catholics, but other Christians and even some Jewish groups.  This quote appears early in the article:  “But all see a major unifier in the mandate’s violation of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion and protection of conscience.”  Some other quotes are:

  • “We … call upon HHS Secretary Sebelius and the Obama administration to rescind this unjust ruling and to respect the religious freedom guaranteed all Americans by the First Amendment,” [the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America] stated.
  • [The National Association of Evangelicals] noted that freedom of conscience is a “sacred gift from God, not a grant from the state.” It also said, “No government has the right to compel its citizens to violate their conscience. The HHS rules trample on our most cherished freedoms and set a dangerous precedent.”
  • The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s [Matthew] Harrison believes with this “secular assault on those of us who hold traditional Christian values … we have a responsibility to stand up and confess in the face of this opposition. It never has been more the time to stand up than now."

The first problem I see is with the appeal to the First Amendment.  Just as a point of reference, the text of the First Amendment reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  There is no mention in the First Amendment of “protection of conscience.”  In fact, there is quite a bit of precedent in the legal history of the United States that state (or Federal) laws that abide by a “neutral law of general applicability” (i.e. the law uniformly applies to everyone and does not single out a certain religion or religious practice) can interfere with the religious liberty of an individual if there is a compelling state interest.  (For an excellent discussion on this topic, read this summary by Richard S. Myers, Law Professor at Ave Maria School of Law.)  In this case the compelling state interest is equal access to medical care for women regardless of where they work.

In regards to the claim that this mandate violates the free exercise of religion (wording that is explicitly included in the First Amendment), this mandate does not require that women must obtain and use birth control that may be contrary to their faith.  To the Orthodox Bishops, HHS and the Obama Administration do respect the religious freedom of all Americans, including those who choose to refrain from birth control, and those who object to religious controls over their access to birth control.  To the National Association of Evangelicals, the government is not compelling its female citizens to violate their consciences (not-for-profit religious organizations do not qualify as citizens).  And to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, there is no secular assault on traditional Christian values; there are safeguards, however, to prevent a religious assault on non-Christian women who hold secular values.

I like the compromise that the Administration is recommending, because it achieves the public goal of providing free access to all women regardless of where they work, and it keeps religious organizations completely out of that arrangement.  The objection I’m anticipating to this compromise is the (probably correct) assumption that insurance companies will increase their rates across the board in order to pay for the women who contract directly with the insurance companies, thus making religious organizations pay for these services indirectly.

Yet the truth is that religious organizations pay for these services indirectly anyway, no matter what.  When a Catholic priest fills a prescription for the antibiotic Amoxicillin, he and his insurance company are giving profits to Teva Pharmaceuticals, the company that currently owns Plan B, which is considered by many conservatives to be an abortion-inducing pill.  Neither the Catholic Church nor any other church can dictate to Teva how they choose to use profits earned on products such as innocent antibiotics, nor can religious organizations dictate to insurance companies how those companies are to use the money they receive on insurance premiums, beyond providing the specific services required by their existing contracts.  So the ‘indirect payment’ argument is a nonstarter.

The fact is that while this country does respect the free exercise of religion, that freedom cannot come at the expense of public wellbeing, and at the moment, the availability of free birth control to women who have employer-sponsored health plans is considered necessary to public wellbeing.  (Whether it should be is a whole other debate, and will most likely be covered in a future blog post in this series.)

All that said, I do believe that there were some valid points made in the National Catholic Register article.  In particular I agree with John Stonestreet, national programs director of BreakPoint, a part of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, who said the following: “The language of (HHS Secretary Kathleen) Sebelius’ release treats pregnancy as a disease that needs to be prevented. That’s bad news. Despite different stances we (Catholics and evangelicals and Protestants) have on birth control, that language is unacceptable and opens the door to a whole bunch of evils.”

I agree.  Sebelius’ exact words in the HHS press release were “The Affordable Care Act helps stop health problems before they start.”  That quote came immediately after a list of benefits, ending with “contraception without charging a co-payment, co-insurance or a deductible.”  That combined with the title of the press release—Affordable Care Act Ensures Women Receive Preventive Services at No Additional Cost—leaves little doubt that HHS considers pregnancy a health problem that should be prevented.  Interpreting the language that way is not a stretch; what is a stretch is interpreting it any other way.

Clearly I’m in favor of providing free access to contraceptives, but I strongly oppose characterizing pregnancy as a health problem to be prevented.  Pregnancy may not always be a delightful, mystical bonding experience of a mother and her child (morning sickness, gestational diabetes, excessive swelling, back pain, etc. are all medical issues associated with pregnancy that often need to be addressed proactively), but categorizing pregnancy as a health problem that needs to be prevented is the same as categorizing aerobic exercise as a health problem because it results in increased heart rate.  Both pregnancy and aerobic exercise need to be done carefully and wisely, but neither is a health problem to be prevented.

Does the wording really matter?  Yes.  All words matter.  I teach that to my kids all the time.  If you tell a person that they’re ugly, stupid, and worthless, eventually they’re going to believe it.  If the major health service agency of the United States government characterizes pregnancy as a health problem that needs to be prevented, then that too will enter into the public consciousness.  (In some ways it already has, but again, that’s a whole other blog post.  See why I have to make this a series?)  I don’t mind contraception being part of the Affordable Care Act, but I’d really rather it not be included under ‘preventative’ services.

The other point well taken in the National Catholic Register article is the one made by Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.  He stated, “Most troubling is the administration’s underlying rationale for its decision, which appears to be a view that if a religious entity is not insular, but engaged with broader society, it loses its ‘religious’ character and liberties. … The administration’s ruling makes the price of such an outward approach the violation of an organization’s religious principles.”  At the core of Christianity, Judaism, and (I believe) Islam is the understanding that the faithful must be actively engaged with the world, particularly in regards to charity.  Retreating into safe, private enclaves and ignoring the needs of your neighbors is simply not an option.  Yet the narrowly defined exemption requires exactly that.  (This is somewhat mitigated by the Administration’s compromise, which came about after the National Catholic Register’s article was written.)

In all, I think there’s overreaching by the Administration, and I think there’s overreaching by religious conservatives.  It’s going to take a lot of hard work and humility on both sides to recognize that the United States of America is not a theocracy, however it does need to respect that fact that it has a lot of people who live by strict religious principles.  Let’s try to figure out a way to respect both the religious and the non-religious, and not fight a Holy War over sexual morality.

Which is another topic I’ll be posting on soon.

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