A woman holding a birth control pill. (Eric Gaillard — Reuters)
Today, when the Department of Health and Human Services’ “contraception mandate” was scheduled to begin, members of Women Speak For Themselves (WSFT)—a grassroots women’s religious freedom group—are demonstrating in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Though HHS postponed implementation of the mandate for religious non-profits to January 1, 2014, the women of WSFT don’t want anyone to believe that the cause of religious freedom is forgotten. And they don’t want anyone buying the phony message the government is selling (in the words of one of our members, Rachel): that “women care more about free birth control than freedom of religion.”
The 40,000 women of WSFT have many reasons for opposing the mandate. Here are their top five:
1. Women really care about religious freedom.
In the words of pollster George Gallup, Jr.: “A mountain of Gallup survey data attests to the idea that women are more religious than men, hold their beliefs more firmly, practice their faith more consistently, and work more vigorously for the congregation.” (George H. Gallup Jr., Why Are Women More Religious, December 17, 2002.) Furthermore, religion provides a rock solid foundation for women’s radical equality with men. There’s nothing like Genesis’ assurance that women were created to “image God” equally with men, or the New Testament’s account of women’s role in salvation history. Politicians and corporate America pay us intermittent attention when pressured. But the religious case for women’s equality never flags.
2. Women have founded, and run or work for, many of the religious institutions the mandate threatens.
Many of the religious institutions the mandate threatens were founded by religious women in order to pay attention to the people the mainstream ignored: females, slaves, immigrants, the poor. Many of the women in our organization have worked for such religious institutions and are loathe to see their lights dimmed, or even put out. There is a special delight in working for a religious hospital or school or social service. It comes in part from understanding that, at the end of the day, we are united on matters of faith, even if we disagree about this or that smaller thing. This is no place for the federal government’s heavy hand. It’s no place for its letters sent home to us and our minor daughters, or for mandatory speeches from the mouths of our insurance providers—assuring us annually that the religious employers we chose to serve don’t know what’s good for us; D.C. bureaucrats do.
3. Approving of birth control doesn’t mean you want the government pushing it.
Even women with no serious moral or religious objection to birth control object to the message in the mandate. When comfortably affluent and single spokeswomen for the mandate assure us that it spells freedom, we smell our government selling the idea that sex without commitment is the new normal for women. And no matter how many elite newspapers assure us that this is true, as women, we know that it’s a lie. Also, we can’t help but notice that this lifestyle seems to work out for affluent women—who generally finish college, marry and have kids after they get married— but not for the poor. In fact, since the government began funneling birth control into vulnerable populations, their rates of nonmarital births and abortions have increased, not decreased. The women of Women Speak for Themselves are insistent that someone stand up to the constant drumbeat of the government’s message that sex—the place where every human person begins—is emotionally and spiritually weightless.
4. “No kids” is not the sum of a “women’s agenda”
We can’t help but notice that the government and its friends in the “women’s rights lobby”—Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and others—seem incredibly eager to feed women birth control and early abortifacients, but haven’t done much to address the problems we persistently raise: poverty disproportionately suffered by women and kids; the dearth of flexible and part-time work and paid family leave allowing us to earn a living while raising kids or caring for parents; the fact that our unpaid carework doesn’t count toward our retirement benefits; reducing our school debt so that we can get on with our lives in our 20s. We are committed to doing more to help women to fully and fairly live their lives.
5. Don’t insult our intelligence.
The government and its supporters’ tone and messaging on the mandate is insulting: “we are the only voice for women’s health,” “the mandate is scientifically supported,” “religious freedom is secured.” Birth control is obviously legal and widely available. Reams of literature (and lawsuits) and the testimonies of women point to the risks of some contraceptives and of the sexually uncommitted lifestyle. The manufacturers of “morning after” pills acknowledge that they really can act to kill embryos sometimes. The “scientific report” underlying the mandate was advised mostly by “experts” associated with Planned Parenthood or its former research affiliate. And we understand that coercing religious employers to violate their consciences is coercive, period.
Helen M. Alvar is a Professor of Law at George Mason University and the Founder of Women Speak For Themselves and Meg T. McDonnell is Executive Director of the Chiaroscuro Institute and Communications Director of Women Speak For Themselves.