Stamp Of Disapproval: Bishops And Religious Right Intensify Crusade Against Contraceptives

Right-wing religious groups that seek to curtail Americans’ ability to get and use birth control are feeling newly empowered.

A few weeks ago, I was rummaging through a storage closet at home when I came across a stamp collection I kept when I was a kid.

I was surprised to see it because I assumed that I had long ago discarded this battered book of postage stamps mainly from the 1960s and ‘70s. I began leafing through it and almost immediately spotted a U.S. stamp that made me do a double-take. It was an 8-cent stamp from 1972 that depicted a drawing of a typical nuclear family of a mother and father with two children. Across the top were the words “Family Planning.”

Wow. So there was a time when the federal government not only talked about contraceptives as a positive thing but even celebrated them on a postage stamp.

That would never happen now. We’ve been pulled backward to the extent that we’re now having a serious national discussion about to what extent Americans should even have access to birth control. Right-wing religious groups that seek to curtail Americans’ ability to get and use birth control are feeling newly empowered.

In other words, in case you’re wondering, all’s still not quiet on the birth control front.

The Catholic bishops, aided and abetted by their pals in the Religious Right, continue working to deny Americans access to affordable and effective forms of contraceptives. The bishops recently hosted “Fortnight for Freedom,” a two week-long series of rallies and other events around the country designed to press the church’s view that it is being persecuted because the new health care law requires religiously affiliated organizations to contract with insurance companies that will provide no-cost birth control to those who want it.

As Americans United has pointed out several times, houses of worship are exempt from this mandate. The rule covers only institutions like church-run hospitals, colleges and social-service agencies. These entities receive massive amounts of taxpayer support and hire and serve non-Catholics. Thus, they’re open to reasonable forms of regulation.

So far, President Barack Obama is standing firm on this issue. Obama was asked about the matter recently by a reporter from New Orleans.

“Well it’s absolutely true that religious liberty is critical,” Obama said. “I mean, that’s what our country was founded on. That’s the reason why we exempted churches, we exempted religious institutions, but we did say that big Catholic hospitals or universities who employ a lot of non-Catholics and who receive a lot of federal money, that for them to be in a position to say to a woman who works there you can’t get that from your insurance company even though the institution isn’t paying for it, that that crosses the line where that woman, she suddenly is gonna have to bear the burden and the cost of that. And that’s not fair.”

It was great to hear Obama frame the issue this way. He debunked the spurious religious liberty claims of the Catholic hierarchy and the Religious Right and pointed out that this is a significant issue of women’s rights. (I would go further and call it a human rights issue. Men have a stake in this, too.)

But Obama’s words won’t stop the religious zealots who are determined to use government policy as a vehicle to enforce their theology. Attorneys general in several states are moving forward with a courtroom attack on the Obama mandate, and legislators in at least one state, Missouri, have passed a law to give any employer the right to remove birth control coverage from health insurance plans. (Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, but there will be an attempt to override.)

A similar bill is pending in the U.S. Congress.

Meanwhile, Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, has announced that she plans to put the issue of contraceptives back on the international agenda. Gates, who was raised Catholic and remains a member of the church, will pour $4 billion into the campaign. She points to a study undertaken by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation showing that access to birth control saves lives.

Reported CBS News, “Her announcement comes in conjunction with a July 10 study in the Lancet that shows contraception prevents 272,040 maternal deaths each year – about a 44 percent reduction in mortality rates. If more birth control were to be provided, researchers believe that maternal deaths could be reduced an additional 30 percent.”

The announcement by the high-profile Gates and her big-dollar pledge will push the issue forward, but it’s sure to spark another backlash as well. Despite the fact that surveys shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans use artificial forms of birth control at some point in their lives, the bishops and their Religious Right allies are convinced that this is a winning issue for them and are working to insert it into the November elections.

To the theocrats among us, “religious freedom” has an odd definition – it’s the right to use the power of government to force their theology onto everyone and even the right to meddle in our most intimate and personal decisions.

The American people (and many moderate and progressive religious groups) reject this definition of religious liberty. Sensible people long ago concluded that it’s foolish for government to adopt policies that have the effect of coercing people to have more children than they want or can afford to raise.

One of these days, we’ll drag the theocrats kicking and screaming into the modern world as well – or at least convince politicians to stop listening to them.

Who knows, maybe we’ll even reissue the Family Planning stamp.

P.S. I recently wrote a story for Church & State on the long-running efforts by conservative religious groups to ban birth control – and the great success they enjoyed not so long ago. You can read it here.