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WASHINGTON — Pundits and politicians who opine about the so-called war on women ought to take note of the lawsuits filed Monday (May 21) against the Department of Health and Human Services contraception mandate by 43 religious groups, including several Catholic dioceses and colleges.
The suits object to the requirement that religious institutions provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs.
In the propaganda surrounding the mandate, HHS seems to suggest that women’s only stake in the matter is “free” contraception. This is a shallow — and frankly demeaning — view of women, who, equally with men, have an important stake in the preservation of religious freedom in the United States.
Three months ago, I drafted an open letter to the administration, framing women’s opposition to the contraception mandate. I sent it to two dozen friends, asking their support. Twelve weeks later, and strictly on the basis of woman-to-woman emailing, that letter boasts 28,000 women’s signatures, now visible at www.womenspeakforthemselves.com
My inbox is flooded with stories from nurses, teachers and social workers at religious institutions that are serving the neediest Americans. These professionals are in positions that primarily attract women; tens of thousands of women choose the unique environment that specifically religious institutions can provide. These women are wary of anything that undercuts religious values where they work.
Several women in this email community remind me of statistics indicating that women — across almost all religions — are more likely to practice a religious faith than men. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life’s 2009 survey, for example, showed that 86 percent of women (compared to 79 percent of men) are affiliated with a religion, 63 percent say it’s “very important in their lives” (compared to 49 percent of men) and 44 percent of women (versus 34 percent of men) attend worship services weekly.
Furthermore, there is no difference of opinion about the importance of religion between women working inside and outside the home. So when you undercut religious freedom, you undercut women.
More than a few women in my new e-mail community have taken note of some blatantly anti-woman aspects of the HHS proposal:
— First, while the mandate covers contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and surgical sterilization for women, it covers none for men. In other words, the government is facilitating only women’s ingesting chemicals (which the government’s own data indicate have some proven harmful side effects) and is placing the burden of pregnancy prevention entirely on women.
— Second, HHS is further suggesting that rather than allowing female employees of religious institutions to seek contraceptive coverage, a government-approved entity will simply provide it to them and all their female beneficiaries (minors included) “automatically” — and without any co-pay to tip off minors’ parents. This isn’t freedom. This is coercion, along with the undermining of parents’ duties and rights respecting their children.
— Third, if the entire rationale for the mandate is to end “unintended pregnancies,” and the government succeeds with this mandate, what would stop it from imposing abortion insurance on us all under the same rationale? This is particularly scary given that women generally oppose abortion more strongly than men, and suffer disproportionately from it.
Tens of thousands of thoughtful women are wondering why — at a time of national economic crises, and with contraception as cheap and widely available as it is — the government has chosen to pick a fight with the religious institutions employing and serving the most vulnerable people in the country, and is doing so under the banner of women’s rights.
If the government is panicked that only 98 percent of sexually active American Catholic women have ever used contraception, it could obviously step up its own already massive distribution programs to close the gap. But it should leave religious freedom alone and stop claiming to speak on behalf of all women.
(Helen Alvare, a former spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-life Activities, is an associate professor of law at George Mason University and serves as chair of the Conscience Protection Task Force at the Witherspoon Institute.)
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