Contraception Conundrum: The Religious Right Redefines Contraception, Conscience, And Constitutional Law

At a panel on the ACA, “Obamacare” to many, speakers decried the bill and the Department of Health and Human Service’s contraceptive mandate in particular as a terrific blow to religious liberty.

In response to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage, “conscience” has become the Religious Right’s newest mantra. Far-right groups have rallied around the claim that publicly subsidized coverage for birth control forces them to violate their consciences.

So it’s little surprise the topic took center stage at this year’s Values Voters Summit. At a panel on the ACA, “Obamacare” to many, speakers decried the bill and the Department of Health and Human Service’s contraceptive mandate in particular as a terrific blow to religious liberty.

One speaker, Richard Doerflinger, insisted that the ACA violates existing federal law. Passed in 1977 as a response to Roe v. Wade, the Hyde Amendment already prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or life-threatening pregnancy complications.

Doerflinger, a lobbyist for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, argued that the bill violates Hyde by appropriating public funds for insurance without establishing a barrier for abortion provision. That’s only true, however, if you move the biological goalposts and redefine exactly what constitutes an abortion.

His fellow panelist, Casey Mattox of the Alliance Defending Freedom, took Doerflinger’s argument a step further and attacked contraception itself. Mattox repeated a line we hear often from groups that oppose legal abortion: that most forms of hormonal birth control, including morning after pills and intrauterine devices, actually induce abortion.

It’s an argument based on the pseudoscience we’ve come to expect from the Religious Right. Their stance is directly at odds with the mainstream medical community.

But Mattox and his peers depend on this shaky science to bolster the claim that the ACA forces them to subsidize insurance plans that cover abortion. Unless they redefine abortion itself, that claim has no merit.

That’s exactly why this inaccurate definition of abortion appears repeatedly in the 74 lawsuits filed on behalf of corporations and non-profit institutions seeking exemptions from the contraception coverage.  

The solution, panelists said, is simple: allow any employer to opt out of the ACA’s contraception coverage – and thus deny access to their employees – based on religious or moral objections.

That language might sound familiar if you’ve been following the federal government shutdown saga. It’s surfaced repeatedly as one of the demands put forth by the House GOP as a condition of reopening the federal government. Mattox, Doerflinger and the third panelist, Anna Franzonello of Americans United for Life, credited their own lobbying efforts for the proposals.

So why has the Religious Right united to attack contraception? The answers are complex.

Opposition to the ACA is certainly partially due to religious conviction. There’s no doubt that many sincerely believe that contraceptives cause abortion. They’re wrong, but they really believe it. Others believe the prevention of pregnancy is itself a sin. Still more believe that providing contraception encourages immoral sexual activity. Belief is a powerful motivating force.

But after attending the Values Voters Summit, I’ve come to believe that there’s another, more cynical agenda at work. The arrogance behind the promotion of an inaccurate definition of abortion lends itself to a selective definition of conscience, too.

When an employer’s religious convictions are prioritized over his or her employee’s right to conveniently access legal medical care, the issue isn’t conscience, but privilege. The groups that make this argument truly believe they deserve the power to influence the private medical decisions made by others.

That’s a clear violation of the Constitution. The federal government cannot grant one dogmatic interpretation of one religion privilege over all other beliefs and perspectives. But that’s exactly what these sectarian groups want.

Americans United doesn’t take a position on the ACA overall, but we steadfastly oppose attempts to force the federal government to show preference for any one religious view. That’s why we’ve consistently filed friend-of-the-court briefs against for-profit corporations suing for exemptions from contraception coverage.

Observers believe the Supreme Court will likely rule on one of those lawsuits this year, which would ultimately settle the issue. Until then, we’re likely to hear the same steady refrain of “conscience, conscience, conscience” from the Religious Right.

But let's remember what it's really about: control, control, control.