Why is Congress Discussing Birth Control?


By Rob Boston

The U.S. House of Representatives today is holding a hearing on “religious liberty.” Only it’s not a hearing on religious liberty – it’s a hearing about giving powerful religious groups the right to impose their theology on anyone in sight.

With this hearing – which, of course, is being stacked with witnesses favorable to the far right’s view – the discussion over birth control has officially lurched into the Twilight Zone. It’s 2012, and we’re seriously arguing over the extent to which Americans should have the right to access contraceptives, an issue most of us thought was laid to rest a long time ago.

Let’s be clear about one thing: This flap has nothing to do with religious liberty and everything to do with control, specifically, who controls the most intimidate details of your life. Will it be you or a band of clerics?

The birth control regulations originally promulgated by the Obama administration exempt houses of worship. They apply only to church-affiliated institutions like colleges and hospitals. These entities exist thanks to massive infusions of public support, and they serve and hire many people from outside the faith traditions that sponsor them.

Yet, in attempt to appease the Catholic hierarchy, Obama tweaked the rule to make it clear that insurance companies, not the church-related institutions, will pay for contraceptives. He needn’t have bothered because the Catholic bishops attacked him anyway. These guys are still smarting over the 1965 Supreme Court ruling that struck down state laws banning the sale of contraceptives. They are not capable of rational discussion over the issue, so why bother?

Worse yet, the bishops then upped the ante. They are now demanding that not only should church-run institutions be freed from the mandate to provide birth control, but private employers as well – even if the business in question has nothing to do with religion. Think about how this would play out. If your boss at the auto parts store happens to be a member of Opus Dei, no birth control coverage for you. If you work for a Jehovah’s Witness, he could refuse to provide coverage for any procedure that might involve a blood transfusion. Or, as this Reuters story notes, a fundamentalist boss could refuse to pay for children’s vaccinations, saying that shows a lack of faith in God.

About birth control: Americans use it. Americans rely on it. Americans want it. The Guttmacher Institute reports that some 98 percent of women will use at least one artificial form of birth control at some point in their lives.

Furthermore, many women use birth control pills not just to limit the number of children they have but for medical purposes. The pills can shrink ovarian cysts, relieve menstrual cramps and regulate monthly periods. Amazingly, some are arguing that women should be denied these medical benefits because of the religious views of their bosses. Furthermore, the argument is being made that when government espouses policies that take away these medical benefits to women, it somehow advances “religious freedom.”

Americans know better. They know that access to birth control protects women’s health and ensures the right to privacy. They also know that it is a curious definition of religious freedom that allows one person to take away the rights of another. In fact, that is not religious liberty at all; it is oppression.

This is borne out by a new poll that shows that the American people aren’t buying the right wing line on this issue. A solid majority backs the contraceptive mandate. Support among Catholics remains high.

As my colleague Simon Brown noted recently, this is a debate about what type of country we are going to be. It’s also indicative of a larger struggle between those Americans who want to move this country forward and those who are determined to drag it back.

I used to think the forces that want to drag us back were aiming for the 1950s. I no longer believe that. Based on their recent statements and antics, I’d say their real target is the 1350s.


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