Standing Up For Birth Control: Religious Voices Speak Out In Contraceptive Debate

A coalition of 23 religious leaders has released a joint statement supporting the Obama administration’s decision on birth control.

Every morning, it seems, I pick up The Washington Post and read another article or column about President Barack Obama’s decision to require employers to provide free coverage of birth control in their health insurance plans.

The move, announced on Jan. 20 by the Department of Health and Human Services, has sparked some controversy because, while it exempts houses of worship, it doesn’t exempt church-related institutions. Thus, church-owned hospitals, colleges and other entities will have to buy insurance plans for their employees that include contraceptive coverage.

To read The Post, you would think the entire country was up in arms about this. For some reason, the paper has chosen to run a steady of stream of opinion columns and editorials denouncing the move.

That can’t be the case. Most Americans rely on birth control. Even 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use it. Yet all we’re hearing are loud denunciations from the (all-male) Catholic hierarchy. Where are the religious voices speaking out in favor of women’s rights to access contraceptives?

Today we’re starting to hear those voices. A coalition of 23 religious leaders has released a joint statement supporting the Obama administration’s decision.

Signers include representatives from the Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Methodist, Episcopalian, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist traditions. (You can read the full list here.)

Observe the groups, “We respect individuals’ moral agency to make decisions about their sexuality and reproductive health without governmental interference or legal restrictions. We do not believe that specific religious doctrine belongs in health care reform – as we value our nation’s commitment to church-state separation. We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services.”

I have been discouraged by the amount of disinformation circulating about this move. Mitt Romney told a Colorado audience recently that “churches and the institutions they run” will “have to provide for their employees, free of charge, contraceptives, morning-after pills – in other words abortive pills and the like – at no cost.”

Wrong. The policy specifically exempts churches. And the reference to abortion is gratuitous. Most women will use this benefit to buy birth control pills, IUDs or other methods. Only true zealots regard all forms of birth control as equivalent to abortion.

Americans United has pointed out that many of the people who work at church-related institutions (which receive generous tax funding and act in a quasi-public fashion) don’t even belong to the sponsoring denomination. It’s a tight economy, and in some communities, these jobs may be the only ones available. Do these people have no rights? Is their health care to be left to the whims of an ultra-conservative church gerontocracy that is so out of touch that even most of its members don’t accept its views?

Americans United Executive Director appeared on National Public Radio’s “Diane Rehm Show” this morning to discuss this matter. (The program should be available online later today. Check here.) Lynn made the point that the Obama administration had to decide between siding with the corporate rights of a church hierarchy or the individual rights of the people. It chose the latter.

I think the president made the right call. And I’m glad some religious leaders who agree are speaking out.

P.S. A gaggle of D.C. pundits is insisting that Obama will face a backlash from Catholic voters over this decision. Actually, a new poll shows that American Catholics support the president's plan more than Protestants do.