The Woe Over Roe: Sinking and swimming in the legislative currents of reproductive rights and religion
If the resignation this week of Susan G. Komen’s senior vice president of public policy, Karen Handel, the woman at the center of the Planned Parenthood defunding firestorm, was meant to signal the Foundation’s remorseful return to advocacy and reverse the self-inflicted damage to its brand, it didn’t come close.
Women have not been swayed one inch by the so-called Congressional investigation of Planned Parenthood’s compliance with the Hyde Amendment. With only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s services relating to abortion, women understand that they are engaged in a recharged war against their rights.
Kinda like Humpty Dumpty’s predicament, it is sadly symbolic and wholly insufficient to inspire women to tape, glue or staple back together the pink ribbons that they cut into pieces and shared with the world on Facebook.
What women have been inspired to do in response to this betrayal by one of the most prominent women’s health advocates, however, is raise their voices louder in support of protecting women’s access to health care. The fact that more than three-quarters of women served by Planned Parenthood today are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level is not a modern trend. It reflects the organization’s founding mission of providing health services, education and care to low-income women in the face of the cultural and religious marginalization of their rights and total disregard of their needs.
Women of color hold a precarious position in this debate. The sensitivity of our relationship with birth control has involved a fight against the cultural stigma that it opens the flood gates for sexual irresponsibility and promiscuity, which has historically demonized the image of Black women. These images were further exploited by eugenicists within the US birth control movement, who tailored a unique brand of scientific racism that spurred massive sterilization programs, racial breeding experiments, and influenced anti-immigration, anti-miscegenation and segregation laws.
Black and immigrant women were considered inferior within scientific, socioeconomic and cultural discourse, and declared “undesired” populations that needed to be reduced or exterminated in order to reinforce the racial superiority of Whites. The suspicion that the medical community embraced negative eugenics when dealing with Black women and birth control prevailed as scientists and researchers were funded to establish methods to limit population growth as a means of preventing uncontrollable poverty, pollution and famine, and the reduction in the quality of life. Unfortunately, statistics have not helped calm these fears within the Black community.
According to the Census Bureau, Whites account for nearly 73% of the US population, and Blacks nearly 15%. Yet, despite the decreasing total number of abortions reported from 1990 to 2007, the CDC reported that Black women had higher rates and ratios of abortions than White women and women of other races. Per 1,000 women of the same race, 8.5 abortions were reported for White women while 32.1 abortions were reported for Black women. When compared to 1,000 live births by race, White women had 144 abortions while Black women had 480 abortions.
However, the subtext for these abortion statistics is that nearly half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are reported as unintended, with African American women having more than twice as many unintended pregnancies than White women. This is yet another health disparity attributed to a lack of access to health education and affordable care such as birth control.
That’s why the new federal health policy that all employers, except for churches and houses of worship, must provide fully covered contraception under health insurance plans for all employees is critical. The majority of sexually active women have used contraception at one time or another. For women who work but cannot afford the out-of-pocket or co-pay expense for contraception today, this new ruling will remove this barrier.
The uproar over the ruling from religious conservatives, particularly Catholic bishops, is causing the public to miss the forest for the trees. The Catholic Church vehemently opposed the legalization of contraception in the early 1900s. Contraceptives were commonly used by middle and upper class women before the Purity Movement swept across the US in the late nineteenth century and led to laws banning the distribution and use of contraceptives, and even literature providing education about contraception. Contraception became obscene and illegal, and abortion was a crime outside of incidences of pregnancy resulting from rape and incest.
It was only when venereal disease threatened the health of military men in an explosion of cases among WWI soldiers that ensuring public health trumped observing puritanical religious and cultural morays. This led to the medical community fully accepting birth control as a basic component of comprehensive health care. Priorities shifted away from personal morality to public health. The pool of birth control advocates broadened from the radical working class to the progressive professional upper class as the birth control movement gained traction.
The movement was led by Margaret Sanger, a nurse whose mother had 18 pregnancies in 22 years, dying at the age of 45. After handling tragic cases of self-inflicted abortion, Sanger worked to educate poor and immigrant women on safe birth control practices and resources—information and access kept quietly reserved in the circles of wealthy women of means—as a means to give them control over their bodies, their health and their lives. Eventually, her work led to the merger of two birth control organizations to form Planned Parenthood.
The Catholic Church fought the growing movement, pressuring media and venues to boycott its lead activists. It lost that battle. And after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, it lost the war over reproductive rights. At the time of the Roe decision, 21 of the original 36 state laws limiting abortion were still in effect; nevertheless the case moved the consideration of abortion as a crime to a medical procedure that physicians had the right to perform under protection of the Constitution. The Court never ruled abortion as a right of a woman to choose or the right of a fetus to live. Again, health care trumped the moral and social arguments that emerged out of the birth control battle.
Since then, the religious right has been trying to put the genie back in the bottle—irrespective of the impact of stripping the empowerment of rights and access to poor, vulnerable, female and minority populations. Bitter sentiments over so-called conservative disenfranchisement of its moral authority have fueled attempts to hit a reset button and reframe the debate in terms of religious morality.
Sounding more like slave masters who decried Emancipation as an infringement on their rights as businessmen to earn profits, conservative concerns over personhood, parental notification, spousal consent, and partial birth—and in the case of Komen and the HHS ruling—taxpayer accountability and government reach—have consistently been rejected by the majority in this country as religious pretentiousness that ultimately does nothing but put women’s health at risk and return women to second class citizenship.
Having grown up with a Catholic patriarch and Muslim elders, I have the deepest respect and understanding of the use of faith as guidance in a person’s life. But we do not live in a theocracy, and setting the poor and women on the altar runs counter to upholding moral standards in the name of God.
If 98% of Catholic women use contraception, is this criticism being leveled by the 2% of women who do not? And where are the voices of the female leadership in the Catholic Church representing this position? Oh, I forgot. Women are not ordained to governance positions within the institutional Catholic Church.
It’s hard to swallow the hypocrisy of so-called religious standard bearers lifting up charges of discrimination against the Administration when these voices are fall silent against the sexual abuse of girls and boys by priests and religious heads. This same hypocrisy was exposed in the case of Komen, which continued to fund Penn State during the ongoing investigation of the Sandusky sexual abuse scandal despite its policy not to fund organizations under investigation that purportedly led to its move of defunding Planned Parenthood.
The claim that the new HHS ruling violates religious liberty and freedom is a faulty, skewed premise that seeks to turn “separation of church and state” on its head. Religiously affiliated organizations—as institutions—are not the Church nor are their staff or employees a monolith of “the faithful.” Therefore, the exemptions afforded to the Church do not extend to its affiliations, in much the same way that diplomatic immunity is not extended to affiliate organizations that support the work of embassies.
Faith-based organizations operate in the public space, not as the sanctuary of a house of worship. The law therefore does not make a distinction between them and secular organizations. They are equally accountable to the greater public good as employers, which includes public health and public safety. Freedom of speech cannot jeopardize public safety and freedom of religion cannot jeopardize public health. Surely we see this come into play for individuals who may believe in animal sacrifice as a part of their religion but find themselves arrested for violating animal cruelty laws.
This is not a First Amendment conflict. Individuals managing faith-based organizations, no matter how pious they may be in their personal religious lives, have the responsibility in their professional capacities to operate their institution in compliance with labor laws that govern all employers’ treatment of all their employees.
All women, even those working for faith-based institutions, should receive the same benefits of fully covered contraception, if they choose to elect it in their plan. The charge that this ruling will infringe on religion is clearly refuted in the widespread implementation of the medical conscience clause for the provision of health care services, which applies to this new HHS ruling. Individuals are not forced to prescribe, dispense or use contraception.
Although conscientious objectors to the draft are not forced to enter the military, it is clear that the draft is legal and applies to all under the law. The government, or State, has the full authority to enact laws, rules and legal limitations that apply equally to all in the public space. You don’t get a pass because your faith practice goes against the law. Or, because you belong to the 1% financially elite or, in this case, the 2% of the faithful