What the Religious Right Really Thinks of Birth Control

The law, lawyers, and the court.
March 11 2014 1:02 PM

“Procedures Involving Gravely Immoral Practices”

What the religious right really thinks of birth control.

Demonstrators protest at Federal Hall National Memorial in New York, a requirement by the US Department of Health and Human Services that most employers provide health care insurance coverage for contraception and sterilization.
Demonstrators at a 2012 rally in New York protest the requirement that most employers provide insurance coverage for contraception and sterilization.

Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

What do religious fundamentalists have against birth control? In challenging the Obamacare rule that employers must provide contraception coverage as part of their health care plans, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the companies whose suits the Supreme Court will hear later this month, have been careful to frame their objections narrowly. They’re not refusing to pay for all birth control. They just don’t want to fund “items” like the morning-after pill and the IUD, which they say effectively cause abortion by preventing a fertilized embryo from implanting in the uterus. Many scientists say that’s not true. But the companies are trying to take a limited, reasonable-minds-may-differ position.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

The government has medical heavyweights on its side, including the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But Hobby Lobby has more briefs—the majority of a total of more than 80 briefs, by my count, were filed by conservative groups—and their allies have written the sentences that jump off the page. Despite how the companies themselves have carefully crafted their case, the briefs from their supporters provide a refresher course in how fundamentalists get from here to there. They are full of revelations.

Before we get to those, a brief recap of why contraception coverage matters. The Department of Health and Human Services decided to include contraception as part of comprehensive preventive health care for women—and thus a service employers must cover under the Affordable Care Act—based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. The IOM looked at the outcomes associated with getting pregnant unintentionally and found connections to delayed prenatal care, premature delivery, low birth weight, maternal depression, and family violence. Getting pregnant without intending to also can prevent a woman from getting a degree or a job she aspires to. Birth control, in other words, helps women in wide-ranging ways. It’s pretty simple, really: Women are better off when they get to choose if and when to have babies. When birth control is part of the health insurance package, as opposed to an expense a woman foots on her own, her health literally benefits.

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That’s the consensus position of the mainstream experts at the IOM, among others. But the American Freedom Law Center, which says it “defends America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values,” sees contraception, instead, as Pope Paul VI did in 1968. In its brief, AFLC quotes the former pope like so:

It has come to pass that the widespread use of contraceptives has indeed harmed women physically, emotionally, morally, and spiritually — and has, in many respects, reduced her to the “mere instrument for the satisfaction of [man’s] own desires.” Consequently, the promotion of contraceptive services — the very goal of the challenged mandate — harms not only women, but it harms society in general by “open[ing] wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.”
the documented negative effects the widespread availability of contraceptives has on women’s ability to enter into and maintain desired marital relationships. This in turn leads to decreased emotional wellbeing and economic stability (out-of-wedlock childbearing being a chief predictor of female poverty), as well as deleterious physical health consequences arising from, inter alia, sexually transmitted infections and domestic violence.

And so, as the AFLC argues, contraceptives of all kinds aren’t medical or related to health care at all. They are “procedures involving gravely immoral practices.” Protected sex demeans women by making men disrespect them. (Just as Pope Paul VI did decades ago, the AFLC presents this as true inside marriage as well as out.) By separating sex from childbearing, birth control is to blame for the erosion of marriage, for the economic difficulties of single motherhood, and even for the rotten behavior of men who beat their girlfriends and wives. Birth control is the original sin of modernity. Its widespread availability changed everything, for the worse.

If it sounds like I’m describing a 1960s enraged sermon about the pill, I guess that’s the point: I could be. The Hobby Lobby case has given the groups that want to go back to prepill days a chance to air their nostalgia. And they want the Supreme Court to know that all women don’t share the view that controlling one’s body, with regard to the deep, life-altering question of when to be pregnant, is helpful and freeing. There are plenty of women who don’t “value free abortion drugs above public goods such as religious freedom and limited government,” as the brief from conservative women’s groups, including Concerned Women for America and the Susan B. Anthony List, puts it. And they are on the straight-and-narrow conservative path to sanctified motherhood. “It is demeaning to women to suggest that women’s fertility and the bearing and rearing of children are ‘barriers,’ ” the group Women Speak for Themselves argues. “Most women aspire to and do bear and rear children.”

Most women who have abortions bear and rear children, too, actually. And it goes without saying that women who have used birth control have kids, too, since “women who use contraceptives” means practically every woman in the country. And yet there are still people willing to say that “well-woman preventive care visits” are about minimizing “the risk and consequence of a sexually licentious lifestyle,” as yet another brief insists.

Make no mistake: If Hobby Lobby wins, the fundamentalist views I’ve been detailing (and despairing) win, too. Here’s the cherished ideal that will have its moment of ascendance: Women should welcome pregnancy at any time. Because if that blessing comes, it was divinely intended, and any other goal, at any moment, must yield.

These Supreme Court cases are ostensibly about a few lines in the many pages of Obamacare regulations, but really, they’re about sex and power. As New York Times columnist Gail Collins pointed out last week, “The war on abortion is often grounded in a simple aversion to sex that does not lead to procreation.” The same is true of the war on birth control. It’s supposed to be over, but it’s not. Because according to the segment of the religious right that signed on to these briefs, there is only one way for true women to wield power: by giving it up to become God’s (and their husband’s) handmaidens.

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