What’s Religion Got to Do With It?

By Marjorie Signer, RCRC Communications Director

Surprise! The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops – an organization of the church hierarchy, not lay Catholics –  and the Family Research Council, the conservative self-described Christian lobbying organization, oppose the Institute of Medicine recommendation on contraceptive coverage.  Of course, it’s no surprise that “religion” is against improving access to birth control. Why? Because “religion” is against birth control, right?

Actually, wrong. The overwhelming majority of religious denominations and traditions solidly support  contraception as a positive moral good and an essential part of health care for women. Over years of research at the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice on religious perspectives on abortion and contraception, I have learned that religions have a deep and abiding concern for nurturing human health and well-being. It is what most of religion is about. Good health is a basic religious value, grounded in biblical teachings. That would include contraception.

As for women themselves, most consider themselves religious and 99% have used birth control at some point in their lives, according to The Guttmacher Institute. That includes Catholics and evangelicals/conservative Christians. Clearly, the Catholic Church hierarchy and the Family Research Council – a leading political organization among evangelicals – are out of touch with their members on this point and just plain wrong.

Many denominations support family planning because it is proven to protect the health of women and children and prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce the need for abortion.  These include the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalists, and Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism. In fact, they teach that men and women must have access to information and services so they can act responsibly about their sexual behavior. And they are unalterably against economic discrimination in health care, including women struggling to pay for contraception.  

Here’s an interesting fact. The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, supports some forms of family planning by married couples. According to Dr. Richard Land, an aggressive opponent of abortion rights who is president of the denomination’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission:

 “..in terms of regulating the number of children and how far apart they are, we would leave that as a moral decision for the couple, as long as they used means of birth control that prevented conception from taking place.”

Adam Sonfield’s comment in June 20 The Washington Post article about the IOM  guidelines struck a chord with me. Sonfield, who’s with The Guttmacher Institute, said the “religious” opposition to contraception – basically, that it can “cause an abortion” – has no scientific or medical basis and then said:

 “They are purposely trying to confuse the American public about what contraception is and to try to tar it as abortion because…in truth they are not just antiabortion, they are anti-contraception.”  

On the assertion that “conscience rights” of birth control opponents would be violated if insurance is required to cover contraception, here’s a few facts:

  • This recommendation would impose absolutely no obligation on health care providers. This and the other IOM recommendations concern what services would be covered by insurance under the health care reform law passed last year. They do not tell doctors or hospitals that they must provide contraception. 
  • According to The Guttmacher Institute in a 2004 study, insurance coverage of contraception is already the norm in the United States. The IOM recommendations would simply make this existing coverage more affordable by removing co-pays.

 Some of the hype about religious opposition to contraception is due to the media needing to tell the “other side” of the story. But don’t underestimate this opposition. Remember what they did to block emergency contraception. There was nothing holy about that.

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