The Bishops Versus Birth Control

I don’t think I’ve ever written this sentence before, but here goes: There’s been so much good news on the pro-choice front lately, it’s hard to keep up! Since my last post, developments have come so rapidly that they demand a follow-up.

First, an update on the Komen story. As you’ve probably heard, the Komen Foundation withdrew its policy barring grants to Planned Parenthood after a firestorm of criticism. This is great news, but the cherry on top is that Karen Handel, the anti-choice politician who was hired as a VP and who was almost certainly a driving factor behind the policy, quit a few days later. Don’t pity her; I’m sure she has a lucrative future on the right-wing lecture circuit. But whether she was forced to resign for creating a policy that went over so disastrously with the donor base, or whether she quit when she realized she wouldn’t be able to advance an anti-choice agenda. Either way this is good news, and makes it that much less likely that Komen will try something like this again in the future.

Second: In my last post, I praised the Obama administration for issuing a rule requiring all non-church employers, including Catholic schools and hospitals, to offer no-copay coverage of contraception. Even though a similar mandate was already the law in 28 states, it provoked a deluge of wailing and teeth-gnashing from bishops and pundits. When the administration announced a compromise, many progressives, including me, feared we were about to see another of the cave-ins that Obama’s first term has been notorious for. But I was pleasantly surprised on Friday when he announced an entirely acceptable deal: religious employers wouldn’t have to pay additional premiums to cover contraception, but insurance companies would have to provide it for their employees regardless.

I don’t usually believe the naive “11-dimensional chess” claims about Obama’s political competence – if he was that much of a genius, he would have seen this coming – but, I have to grant, this was a very clever move. The bishops’ real objection isn’t to paying for birth control; it’s to women using birth control. But they didn’t want to say this openly, so they tried to conceal their real aim under a spurious assertion of religious liberty. Obama’s move denied them that excuse, and they were soon forced to come out and admit what they really want: to deny people the right to use contraception of any kind. Some Republican politicians have also taken the bait.

There are some background facts that need to be emphasized here. Contraception is overwhelmingly popular among the American public, Catholics not excluded: according to a Guttmacher study, 99% of women, and 98% of Catholic women, have used contraception (other than the church-approved method of NFP). Many commenters have pointed out the colossal disconnect: the Catholic hierarchy demands that everyone abstain from birth control, and the laity universally ignores them. Similarly, there’s broad public support for requiring all employers to offer contraceptive coverage, and again, even a majority of Catholics agree. All the bishops’ loud and unanimous insistence that not using birth control is essential to Catholicism has done nothing to budge this consensus. Seldom in the history of any church has any doctrine been taught so fiercely and been obeyed by so few.

I’m glad that the fight is shifting to this ground. It’s by far the most favorable terrain for us to argue on: to oppose us, the bishops and their apologists will have to make their medieval, anti-human views explicit and unmistakable. (Also, I should note for the sake of completeness that it’s not just the Catholic church: polls find similar levels of opposition to contraception among evangelicals.) They want to be kings ruling by divine right, dictating to people how they may or may not use their reproductive systems, forcing people to bear children with no thought to whether they’re ready for the responsibility or whether they’ll be fit parents. This is the same reason I noted with satisfaction the conservative guest blogger on Unequally Yoked who’s arguing to ban same-sex marriage because he’s against the idea that “people have the right to seek the fulfillment of their sexual and emotional desires”.

The theocrats’ open advocacy of reproductive slavery leaves a wide opening for atheists and secularists to say what we stand for. We stand for human freedom. We stand for people being masters of their biology and not prisoners of it. We stand for having sex for pleasure. We stand for people having only as many children as they want and are able to care for. In all these things, we can draw a sharp contrast between us and the people who yearn for the days when life was nasty, brutish, poverty-stricken and short, and invite the public to choose which way they prefer.

Image credit: starbooze

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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