Friday, February 17, 2012

Republicans Decide People with a Uterus Should Have No Say on Issues of Birth Control and Religious Freedom

Yesterday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform assembled a panel to discuss the birth control mandate (which I've written about here, here, and here). The goal of the panel was to determine whether or not the mandate violates religious freedom.

Since I last wrote about the birth control mandate, the Obama administration has offered a compromise to help protect people who, for religious reasons, think birth control is evil. Instead of requiring religious employers to subsidize the cost of of birth control, the insurance companies providing the institution's health care plan will have to subsidize the cost. But even with this compromise, religious extremists, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, are unhappy and feel that Obama has declared war on religion.

I think many feminists knew all along that the outrage over the mandate had nothing to do with religious freedom, and had everything to do with controlling women. Religious extremists, including the USCCB, think it is bad and dangerous that women have the ability to have sex without getting pregnant, to have fewer children, or to delay having children, even if they're married. And many believe that taking hormonal birth control is the equivalent of having an abortion, despite that thing called science which tells us otherwise. Jill over at Feministe writes:
So fine, compromise time: Catholic organizations, even those that are not really all that religious and instead serve the public, won’t have to pay for contraception. Instead, insurance companies will have to cover contraception. Bam, women are covered, and no one is forced to violate their strong moral opposition to birth control by covering it for their employees. Good, right? Everyone’s happy?
Nope! Because, wait, this is just about a handful of celibate men wanting to control women’s reproductive freedoms? And it’s not really about religious freedom at all? It’s just about hostility to women having the ability to prevent pregnancy? Oh. Who could have possibly seen that coming?
So despite the fact that no religious employer even has to subsidize the cost of contraception, a panel was organized to see if the fact that women have access to contraception at all interferes with religious freedom (newsflash: it doesn't).

California Republican Darrell Issa was in charge of the panel, and he rejected requests to have women on the panel saying, "the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception." Instead, he composed a panel of five men from various religious traditions. Not only did he decide that it was silly to include people who have a uterus or actually take birth control, he also decided that women don't have religious consciences. He could have included one of the 98% of Catholic women who use contraception. But apparently their religious conscience doesn't count. It is the religious conscience of the celibate men we should be worried about! Their religious freedom matters, not women's.

This video shows Representatives arguing against the panel because it only includes people who disagree with the mandate and only represents a small portion of religious institutions (for example, Catholic charities that support the mandate were not invited. Neither was Catholics for Choice). They also argue that it does not include women, who will be primarily affected if the mandate is overruled. They literally plead to allow a woman to participate. Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Eleanor Holmes Martin walked out in protest. As Maya over at Feministing writes, "This is democracy in action ladies and gentlemen: Women actively barred from speaking about an issue that directly affects us, our health, and our lives." I'd also like to add that if this is actually a legal issue about separation of church and state, where are the legal scholars? None of the people on this panel have any great legal knowledge.

If this isn't enough, in Issa's opening statement he said that "a man's conscience" should guide laws in America (emphasis mine). Then Bishop William Lori compared insurance companies subsidizing the cost of contraception to Jewish delis being forced to serve pork. Does he know that not eating pork isn't exactly a public health issue, or that not having access to pork doesn't mean you'll wind up pregnant? Does he know that Jewish delis, or Jewish hospitals/schools for that matter, don't run around actively trying to bar other Jews, and especially non-Jews, from eating pork. They're not upset that some of their hard-earned tax money might end up supporting pig farmers or the meat industry, thus violating their conscience. In addition to being a ridiculous analogy (although not as ridiculous as an analogy I heard from another Catholic man, who said the birth control mandate is the same as telling Catholic doctors that they have to shoot their patients), comparing bacon to birth control and women's health is incredibly demeaning and insulting. Erin Gloria Ryan, from Jezebel, writes, "The comparison of birth control to cooked pig parts was effective in one way, though— it showed that the Church utterly devalues women, and views their health care as a recreational afterthought. Want to have some honey glazed ham? Wanna keep from getting pregnant? Same thing!"

The fact that access to birth control is compared to access to bacon is infuriating. The fact that no one on the panel was a woman, supported the mandate, or had a background in law or medicine is infuriating. But the most infuriating thing is that in 2012, we're actually having congressional hearings about access to birth control.

Picture from the Congressional Hearing. Where are the women?


  1. I think you miss the point here.

    "Instead of requiring religious employers to subsidize the cost of birth control, the insurance companies providing the institution's health care plan will have to subsidize the cost." That argument is a red herring. The religious institution pays the insurance company, who then pays for the birth control. The money still flows from the religious institution to the birth control providers, it just flows through an indirect channel.

    I think it's incredulous to paint the religious institutions are trying to restrict access - they just don't want to participate in promoting access. It's one thing to say I don't want to pay for your dinner - it's another to physically restrain you from putting food in your mouth. The church's position is analogous to the former, not the latter.

    In general, I think the scope of health insurance is too large to begin with. Insurance policies are designed to protect individuals again low-probability, high-cost events; not predictable, regular events. Your auto insurance will cover damages in a major accident, but it doesn't cover oil changes or gasoline.

    Do you know what would really promote access to birth control? Deregulation. If pharmacies were able to sell birth control over the counter (without a prescription), there would be greater access and lower prices for all.

  2. My family (all Catholic) and I had a heated discussion about this last weekend as all the Sunday political shows discussed the issue. Interestingly, my dad suggested that his generation sees this as a "religious freedom" issue, whereas the younger generation (us) sees this as a public health issue.

    Anonymous, I understand the argument about healthcare and the difference between active promotion and passive acceptance of policies that may conflict with religious norms and values. What I think Shannon was arguing for is that at the end of the day, this is about women's health, security, and mobility. Access to contraception is a factor in basic preventative health care.

    In a stunning refusal to include the 98% of Catholic women and 99% of women overall in this country who have used or are currently using some form of birth control, the politicians involved in this "culture war" debate have shown their true colors.

    As for deregulation of birth control, women who use birth control must get a prescription (or for some forms of contraception, a medical exam to fit a contraceptive device) because it a medicine with biological and physiological effects that need to be monitored and evaluated. For example, those with family histories of breast cancer may need to understand the risks and benefits of hormonal pills to regulate estrogen levels, or they may be advised by their doctors to try different contraceptive methods. A pharmacist may be able to advise in some aspects, but a trained medical doctor (such as an OBGYN) is the best person to "promote access to birth control."

    (Also, see here for how much women spend on birth control:

  3. 2 -> 1,

    "at the end of the day, this is about women's health, security, and mobility. Access to contraception is a factor in basic preventative health care." This is a non-sequitor. Access to birth control is every woman's right, but it is not an entitlement that society owes.

    By your own numbers, 99% of women successfully obtained and used birth control in the pre-mandate world. That does not sound like a society that is restricting access to me. According to the link, the uninsured cost of the pill is $850/year, or $70/month. Of course, nothing in this world is free, but that seems like a manageable expense for a woman whose lifestyle requires birth control regularly.

    I still believe deregulation would work to promote access. Every medicine has risk factors (of course, so does having unprotected sex in the first place!). Perhaps I trust women's ability to self-monitor after a few preliminary consultations with their doctor. I'm not the brightest male, but even I can successfully navigate grocery stores and restaurant menus despite my peanut allergy.

  4. Anonymous - I don't think it is incredulous to say that religious institutions are trying to restrict access to birth control. By not providing insurance coverage of contraception to employees of Catholic schools or hospitals, they are making it difficult or impossible for women to get contraception. That is restricting access. Moreover, outside of this debate, the Catholic Church frequently advocates against birth control. Santorum, a Catholic politician, has even said that he thinks states should be able to make birth control illegal, and his statement received tremendous support from many Catholic priests. Catholic institutions, like schools, also frequently refuse to prescribe birth control and Catholic pharmacists will not fill bc prescriptions. That is restricting access to contraception. The Church doesn't want to simply "not promote" contraception, if they had it their way it wouldn't be available to any woman.

    As From Two to One said, access to birth control is about women's health, security, and mobility. It is basic preventative care. And no religion, and especially no group of select men within a religion, should be able to hinder me from getting that preventative care. They shouldn't be able to jeopardize my health.

    99% of women will use birth control at some point in their lives, but that isn't necessarily in a pre-mandate world. 28 states already have mandates similar to or stricter than the new federal legislation. Part of the reason I feel it is important that the federal mandate remains in place is so that these state mandates aren't attacked either. We can't let our society become one in which it is even more difficult to get birth control. Also, recent studies show that most women struggle at some point to afford birth control. $870 dollars a year or $70 a month is a lot of money to many women! $70 a month is not a manageable expense for many women, who are already struggling to put food on the table and care for themselves or the children they may already have.

    I'm not entirely sure what you mean by a woman "whose lifestyle requires birth control." Any woman who is having sex and doesn't want to get pregnant has a lifestyle who requires birth control. I would argue that, for example, a low-income, married woman with one or two children, who is already working to provide for her family, is exactly the type of person who needs access to birth control the most. Her "lifestyle" requires birth control regularly, and she probably can't afford $70 a month.

    As to deregulation, I know there are some who think that bc should be over the counter. I haven't done lots of research on that, so I don't have a strong opinion either way. I do worry, however, that making birth control over the counter could create an idea that you don't need medical care or access to a doctor to take it safely. That could put many women's health in jeopardy. I get terrible migraines with certain types of birth control, and had to work closely with my OBGYN to find a hormonal birth control that worked for me and my body. Without access to that doctor, birth control wouldn't have been safe for me.

  5. From Two to One - That is so interesting that your dad thinks it is a generational divide! I think partly it depends on how you even define religious freedom and religious conscience. It is the religious freedom and the conscience of the women taking it? Or the religious conscience of the USCCB? I never thought there was an argument for the bc mandate violating religious freedom. Now with the compromise, I certainly don't think it does!

    And I think you're spot on that the politicians' refusal to allow women to participate in the panel shows their true colors; that this isn't just about healthcare but gender politics as well. That is is largely a war on women.

  6. I would add that at the root of this is the right's fear of women's sexuality, as evidenced in Anonymous' comment about a woman "whose lifestyle requires birth control," which is a thinly veiled suggestion that women who use birth control are wanton sluts who have sex for reasons other than procreation.

  7. NancyM - Yes! You're absolutely right that at the root is fear of women's sexuality.

    I was confused by Anonymous' comment as well, especially since he seems to imply that women who use birth control are not only wanton sluts, but wanton sluts who seem to have lots of extra cash lying around.

  8. Shannon and Nancy, I had no idea what the "lifestyle" phrase meant either. Basically, any woman who is sexually active and uses (or is trying to seek access to use) birth control is somehow suspect for being a harlot (see great Colbert skit on this) or unfeminine (not making enough babies). Basically, it will always boil down to a lose-lose situation for women when they are reduced to their sexuality (too sexual : being a sexual being with own desires and needs, or not sexual enough in the right way: being a mother).

    As a practical side note, $70 for birth control is a LOT of money. It's the same argument as conservative politicians saying that poor people aren't really that poor because they have X (phone, TV, car, refrigerator). And seriously, the whole refrigerator is sadly real:

  9. I'll be happy to clarify, if it prevents you from erecting more straw man arguments.

    A woman whose "lifestyle requires birth control" (and has employer-provided health insurance), by definition, has a job with benefits. Perhaps I'm old fashioned, but when I receive my paycheck, I would prioritize food, shelter, clothing, debt and other true necessities. Satisfying a need to have consequence-free sex is nice, but not pertinent to my survival. If women are "struggling to put food on the table" as you suggest, sinking $70/month into birth control is pretty irresponsible.

    I think you are missing my larger point. $70/month may seem like a lot of money, but NOTHING in this world is free. If health insurance costs $300/month without providing birth control, then it MUST cost at least $370/month to provide birth control. That higher premium means that less compensation is available in the form of employee salaries.

    A religious employer should have the option:
    1) Provide an employee with a monthly salary of $2,000 with $300 in health benefits.
    2) Provide an employee with a monthly salary of $1,930 with $370 in health benefits.

    The mandate makes it illegal for employers to pursue option 1. Why should they be forced to participate in a plan that conflicts with religious beliefs? THAT is the issue here. The church isn't seeking to abolish option 2; they simply want option 1 to be legal.

  10. Anonymous - Thanks for clarifying. I would argue that a woman "whose lifestyle requires birth control" is any woman having sex without intent to procreate, or any woman who uses birth control for a medical reason regardless of whether she is having sex. It does not,by definition, mean a woman who has a job with employer-provided insurance and benefits. None of us were setting up straw man arguments. The way you phrased it has a certain connotation, both about sexuality and privilege (i.e. that having sex without the risk of getting pregnant is an unnecessary luxury, and that only a certain class of people should have such a privilege and be able to pay for it themselves).

    I think lots of women who struggle to afford birth control also struggle to put on the table, pay for housing, etc. And satisfying a need to have "consequence-free sex" as you put it, can be necessary to survival, both physically and economically. Sinking $70 a month into birth control is not irresponsible, it might be the most responsible thing a woman can do; necessary for her physical and economic safety and the security of any family she may have. You shouldn't have to choose between food and not getting pregnant. So the only irresponsible thing I see about a low-income woman having to spend $70 a month on birth control is that we as a society allowed her employer to not provide insurance coverage. And before you reply that a woman should just abstain from sex if she is that poor, I'll go ahead and say that women (and their partners) shouldn't have to go for potentially years without having safe sex simply because their employer had their own moral issue with birth control. Also, it is unfortunately dangerous to assume that all women have the ability to say no to sex safely. Having access to the pill might be the only thing keeping a woman from having another child that she can't afford to care for or from having another pregnancy that might jeopardize her life.

    Employers aren't being forced to do anything that violates their religious beliefs. They are simply being told that their religious beliefs can't interfere with the rights and religious beliefs of others. As Jon Stewart said the other night, "That is what you have to do as part of society. They're confusing the war on religion with not getting their own way."

  11. Anonymous, sometimes having a "lifestyle that requires birth control" means that bleeding to death would be bad for my health (and my lifestyle). Paying for birth control (minus my copay) certainly costs my insurer less than an emergency room visit with blood transfusion would.

  12. Maybe we should have a "sex-in". A protest in which we refuse to have sex for a certain period of time. There is no denying that we as women do have a power in our sexuality. They want to treat our bodies as property and our minds as meat. Why not deny them their desires? After a month or two I bet they won't be feeling so high and mighty. Sex should never be a tool, and yet that is what they seem to want to make us. A baby production factory. If I'm going to be a utensil it's going to be my own damn choice! This world makes me weary, the way women are treated. I'm sure there's a time in every woman's life where she wishes she had the power to control the universe and make others understand her suffering and how it feels to scream and scream but nobody listens.

    1. Oh and to those arguing that pregnancies from rape are only a small percentage and should be considered negligible, consider this: those are out of pregnancies from rape and rapes that have been reported. So many go unknown out of shame because ours is a society that glorifies and accepts abuse and violence towards women. Victim blaming is a horrendous practice that occurs to this day. Want to know something else sad? It's very likely that one or more women in your household have been the victim of sexual abuse, whether it is rape or molestation. It needs to end.

  13. I urge all of you lovely ladies to watch this:

    Again, making the point that "access" is not equivalent to "having every human being who wants health insurance to subsidize the cost of something I like."

  14. eTo male anonymous. Why are you even in this conversation? You are a male and by that alone you cannot understand what this means to a woman who is innocent of uber religious male dominated sanctions. Go away. Let women decide what to do with their bodies. If they believe birth control is wrong and abortion is wrong they don't have to use it or have it (abortion). To have all men deciding the fate of women is an outdated concept.

  15. I just wish someone would cite this mythical $70/mo birth control. Especially when Walmart and CVS have $5 generics available.

  16. I just went to refill my birth control prescription a week ago. The cost out of pocket was $17. When I looked over my insurance, the total cost was $57. When I was on a low-hormone birth control pill, which I needed for medical reasons, the cost out of pocket was $50. EVERY.SINGLE.MONTH. I don't remember what the cost would have been without insurance, but obviously it was much more than $70.

    P.S. I have filled my birth control at a CVS for almost 7 years now. And when I've asked them to give me the cheapest generic they have, it has never been only $5.