The year 2011 proved to be a particularly challenging one for women’s health. The overall efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, restrict abortion and general reproduction rights, and argue for a clarification between “rape” and “forcible rape” resulted in many referring to these and similar events as the “War on Women.”
It seemed in many ways that we had suddenly catapulted back in time a few decades. Are we really having these same conversations all over again? As many of us continue to work for and hope for a day when women’s bodies will be valued and women’s choices trusted, the various efforts to regress were frightening.
The break of 2012, however, has assured us that though the “war” will wage on, we can still make progress. The first of the year brought with it Obama’s effort to provide birth control to all women. The general gist of his initial hope was to require all employers—with the exception of mosques, synagogues, churches, etc—to provide insurance coverage for birth control without co-pays. The dicey part was figuring out what to do with religious institutions such as universities and hospitals. If these religious institutions oppose the use of contraception, does it then become an infringement on religious freedom to require them to cover birth control?
Obama’s first solution was to include these religious institutions in the new plan but to allow them one year before it would take effect. Many people were not happy with this initial plan. Rick Santorum believes the entire effort was unnecessary as “This has nothing to do with access. This is having someone pay for…something that shouldn’t even be in an insurance plan anyway because it is not, really an insurable item. This is something that is affordable, available.”
While I adamantly disagree with such a statement, it is not difficult to comprehend (though not excuse) why he might believe it given his personal context.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Sister Carol Keehan who is the head of a Catholic hospital group and seen as a voice of the religious left, also disagreed with the proposal. She stated her belief that Obama’s decision was principally and politically dangerous and could threaten the “the future of health reform.” Again, I may not completely agree, but I can understand her perspective.
What I have a much harder time understanding, however, is the mindset of those like New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte who asserts, “This is not a women’s right issue, this is a religious liberty issue.”
Isn’t it both? Having access to adequate health care is certainly a woman’s right issue. Having to pay for a drug your religion rejects is a question of religious liberty. How can these be extracted from one another?
As Christians, it is incredibly tempting to believe our religious liberty has no negative impact on absolutely any other realm of society. We want to believe that if we are being faithful to our religion, to our God, then we must be doing the “right” thing.
The difficulty arises, however, when we realize that our faith does not take place within a social vacuum. Our individual relationships to God cannot be severed from our social impact on other individuals. There are times when religious liberty will butt heads with women’s rights, or pluralism, or marriage equality—and things get messy. Often, Christian claims to “religious liberty” are favored over the rights of persons indirectly involved.
In this case, the rights of the women working at various hospitals and universities who do not share the religious values of the institution seem unclear to me. How to handle religious liberty in light of its societal implications remains ambiguous in my own mind.
Fortunately for Obama and for women across the nation, Obama found a way out of the ambiguity while managing to compromise neither women’s rights nor religious liberty. The religious institutions in question will not have to pay for birth control – the issue will be completely out of their hands.
Instead, the insurance companies will be held responsible for the free contraceptive care which works in their financial favor. As a result, women will have access to the health care they need starting August 1, 2012. I couldn’t be more pleased about this step in the right direction for women’s health. It is a great cause of celebration!
Yet, the ambiguity of religious (particularly Christian) liberty in light of the on-going “War on Women” warrants further exploration. It is not a new question, but it remains an unresolved one. Where do we draw the line on religious liberty? When do we ask those with other values to respect religious beliefs?
I don’t have clear answers. What I do know, however, is that we do not have the luxury of separating women’s, queers’, atheists’, etc. rights from the religious liberty of Christian individuals and institutions.