Framing the Debate: Religion and Contraception

An analysis of the self-imposed limitations of politicians when discussing polarizing issues of health and religion.

What Democrats have coined as a “War on Women,” has catapulted from an initial policy shift requiring employers to cover contraceptives in their health insurance plans, to a slew of legislation aimed at preserving religious freedoms. In each political arena, however, the debate is being framed differently. Both parties' stances are largely formatted around the preservation of human rights; conservatives are painting a portrait of potentially fractured religious freedoms, while the liberals rally to provide claimed fundamental women’s rights.

Currently, one in three women say they have experienced difficulty in affording birth control. To combat this, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently announced that all new health insurance plans under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act remove any co-pays, co-insurance, or deductibles for women who use, or want to access, contraceptives.

Almost immediately, the Obama administration received pushback. Constituents claimed that forcing employers to pay for medication that inherently violated their moral or religious ethics is an infringement of that employer’s religious freedoms. Though churches and other houses of worship are exempt from this clause, institutions such as religiously affiliated charities, hospitals, and universities are still required to provide no-cost coverage for their employees. In response to increasing pressure from the Catholic Church, President Obama shifted the payment structure within the mandate so that it is now the responsibility of the employer’s insurance company to provide these services.

Despite this attempt at appeasement, frustrations abound. Opponents of the policy range from organizations such as the Family Research Council and the Alliance Defense Fund to various religious leaders, for example, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Politicians are divided on the topic as well, with conservatives such as Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) staunchly stating, “This is not a women’s rights issue, this is a religious liberty issue.”

The struggle that opponents to the mandate face is that in the eyes of policy supporters, they are fighting for the protection of an abstract ideology with no tangible repercussions. And when repercussions are seemingly incomparable, it makes it difficult for legislators and voters to determine the “greatest good.” The argument that legislation can cause a sliding scale of policy shifts is a valid one, but it is a difficult case to win in the face of denying medical benefits to a population that comprises more than half of the country. Some would argue that the protests of employers who demand the right to “opt-out” are not unique; each of these employers pay an income tax to the federal government that in turn, fiscally supports the social services that provide access to birth control.

The debate has isolated itself – pushing decision-makers into refusing to acknowledge that quality of life is a holistic issue. In an effort to protect religious freedoms, the issue of women’s health is being sidestepped as a discussion point. The National Institute for Reproductive Health cites that of the 36.2mn women in need of contraception, almost half need public assistance in accessing these contraceptives. Proponents of the policy claim that their opponents would not only limit a woman’s right to family planning, but also restrict access to medications necessary for life-threatening health concerns. The National Center for Biomedical Technology cites numerous medical benefits provided by oral contraceptives outside the function of family planning (knowledge that has been shrouded throughout the debate). Prolonged use of oral contraceptives is proven to decrease the likelihood of ovarian and endometrial cancer, both of which often involve severe pain and abnormal bleeding. The use of hormonal contraceptives has also been found to help those who suffer from ectopic pregnancies and/or pelvic inflammatory disease.

Due to the polarization of the issue, and without a space to honestly discuss policy details, the intricacies of medical accessibility are being misconstrued. Outside of employer provision, those in need of hormonal contraceptives for reasons other than family planning are still able to access these medications with doctor authorization – a fact largely left out of the debate. Insurance companies are required to honor these designations, though coverage may not ensure that these hormones are affordable.

While the proposed legislation affects a small number of employers, the larger issue of family planning continues to draw concern, as many would claim that religious employers are now required to choose between protecting doctrine, or their religious liberty.

According to the Center for Reproductive Rights, nearly half of all US pregnancies are unintended – with 22% resulting in abortion, a historically controversial issue for Catholic Church. The fiscal savings created by providing no-cost contraceptives are also significant; research shows that for every one dollar spent funding public family planning clinics, $4.02 is saved in averted Medicaid birth costs. This poses a financial benefit for employers, as the policy would decrease their total insurance by providing preventative medicine for pregnancy and would potentially decrease the national expenditure on social services for women who need pre-natal care. Alternatively, many have posited that the shift of provision from the employer to insurance companies is simply rhetorical, and that employers will still end up footing the bill.

Politico reports that House Republican leaders are retreating somewhat on this issue, and instead taking a larger aim at the November elections. However, this retreat does not include the states currently passing aggressive reforms in response to Obama’s policy. Virginia recently passed a forced-sonogram law requiring women to participate in an ultrasound prior to receiving an abortion. In some cases, it required a transvaginal procedure, which meets the state’s legal definition of rape. Although the bill is currently being debated, Arizona has a pending bill that would allow employers to penalize or fire employees who desire reimbursement for contraception if they are unable or refuse to prove that their usage is for non-family planning related reasons. Fringe bills like these have limited discourse, distracting parties from addressing their mutual concern of protecting fundamental human rights. Without creating a space for direct analysis and honest discourse, the framework of this debate will continue to prohibit any type of resolution.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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