Contraception, Hobby Lobby, and Abortion

Baptist Christian ethicist David Gushee recently wrote a helpful summary and analysis of the Hobby Lobby case that is before the Supreme Court, with a decision anticipated in June. He summarized his conclusion:

This case is the perfect storm: it brings into one case passions many Americans feel about President Obama, health care reform, sexuality, government, women, abortion, science, culture, freedom, and religion, especially Christianity. Now all the Supreme Court has to do is sort it out. This will be no simple chore. But on balance I would vote No on Hobby Lobby.

He also raised some important questions, including:

Wouldn’t a win for Hobby Lobby really mean that we would be ensuring that the religious convictions of the one (business owner/family) would then trump the needs (and convictions) of the many (everyone who works for that business)? Do we want to give business owners that kind of power? Cuius corporatio, eius religio?What happens when, say, a Christian Scientist company owner decides not to cover any health benefits, or a Jehovah’s Witness company owner decides not to cover blood transfusions, or an anti-vaccination owner decides not to cover the MMR shots, or perhaps a trust-Jesus radical decides not to contribute to employee Social Security or a 401(k)? Do we really want to open up that Pandora’s Box?

But it was this question that has especially had me thinking:

Are critics taking seriously the public health benefits of no-cost contraception coverage, and the moral benefits of the likely dramatic reduction in the number of unplanned pregnancies and abortions? Or does their principled objection to contraception and/or (perceived) abortifacients totally trump data related to the actual impact of no-cost access to contraception?

In the 2008 presidential campaign, I was an outspoken advocate for Barack Obama, and one of the most frequent objections I heard – usually coming from my conservative Roman Catholic and Evangelical friends – ran along these lines: How can you vote for a pro-choice candidate?

My reply ran along these lines: Republicans want to overturn Roe v. Wade, something that is unlikely to happen. But even if it did …

even if McCain were to win the election and appoint Supreme Court justices who would in fact overturn Roe vs. Wade, this move will not outlaw abortion, contrary to what many believe. It will only return the decision to the states, which raises this question: how many states lean toward criminalization?

The Guttmacher Institute recently released new 2014 stats on this question, and so here’s the current answer:

4 states have laws that automatically ban abortion if Roe were to be overturned.
11 states retain their unenforced, pre-Roe abortion bans
8 states have laws that express their intent to restrict the right to legal abortion to the maximum extent permitted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the absence of Roe. [Guttmacher Institute, Abortion Policy in the Absence of Roe, 2/1/14]

Here are those 19 states (some meet more than one of the criteria above) with their recent average number of abortions per year:

Alabama: 9550; Arizona: 16100; Arkansas: 4370; Delaware: 5090; Illinois: 44580; Kansas: 6940; Kentucky: 3970; Louisiana: 12210; Massachusetts: 24030; Michigan: 29190; Mississippi: 2220; Missouri: 5820; New Mexico: 5180; North Dakota: 1250; Ohio: 28590; Oklahoma: 5860; South Dakota: 600; West Virginia: 2390; Wisconsin: 7640 … Total: 215,580 = 20% of 1.06 million total abortions
[Guttmacher Institute, Volume 46, Number 1, March 2014, TABLE 2. Number of reported abortions and abortion rate, selected years; and percentage change in rate, 2008–2011—all by region and state in which the abortions occurred]

In other words, if the Republican Party succeeded in overturning Roe v. Wade, abortions would be reduced by up to 20% – if, that is, criminalization worked. That’s significant.

But it’s far less than the anticipated 75% reduction that would come by making contraception available as part of health care policies, as provided by the ACA, according to a recent study.

The ethics behind the Hobby Lobby case are, indeed, complex, as are the politics. But it’s hard to question two facts:

1. Providing contraception (along with other basic health care) reduces abortion very significantly.
2. It would reduce abortion more significantly than criminalizing abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade.

To put the point more strongly: by opposing the inclusion of contraception in health care, conservatives who support the Hobby Lobby case and oppose the ACA are actually choosing to increase the number of abortions.

If they reply that they oppose free contraception on other grounds, such as that it encourages promiscuity, a recent study found that is not the case.

Are conservative Evangelicals and Catholics thinking about these realities when they oppose the ACA? Are they unaware of this line of reasoning? Are they making a tough ethical choice – choosing the lesser of two evils in their minds – so as to allow more abortions as a necessary cost of achieving other goals they care about even more? What are those goals, and why are they so important?

About Brian McLaren

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, pastor, and networker among innovative Christian leaders, thinkers, and activists.


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