Since time immemorial, sex and religion have had a difficult relationship — each one always seeking
to free itself from the other.
Religions play a fundamental role in
defining the attitude of society and governments to matters of reproduction
and sexuality. The influence of religion in individual decision-making
on sex-related issues is beyond doubt, even among self-declared anti-religion
Yet there is so much more that could
come out of a comfortable co-existence between sex and religion, and this interconnection
is usually sacrificed at the altar of both conservative views or self-justified
Suffice it to say that around the world
there are many religious organizations that are already engaged in work
to improve the lives of women; that work oftentimes touches on sexual
and reproductive health and rights. Unfortunately, religious and secular
organizations have largely failed to forge links that than can advance
the cause of sexual and reproductive health and rights, opting instead
to regard each other as enemies. Sexuality and reproduction are at the
core of religion’s attitude toward women, and in many parts of the
world, improving the status of women needs to work at the nexus of religion
and reproductive health and rights.
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To achieve this requires the religious
and secular groups and individuals working in concert to ensure that
men and women can have satisfying and constructive sexual lifestyles.
In its purest essence, religion –
whether Christian, Muslim or Hindu – seeks to promote justice, dignity
and compassion. These core values can be harnessed in the effort to
advance sexual and reproductive health and rights.
In fact, the religious sector can play
a significant role to challenge patriarchal systems that legitimate
violence, abuse, and exploitation of men by women. Oftentimes, the religious sector
turns a blind face when atrocities are committed against sexual minorities
and women in the name of religious doctrine. Conversely, secular organizations and
individuals will often employ blame tactics and adversarial attitudes
towards the religious sector, grabbing media headlines in the process,
but without making headway to change the status quo.
When the secular and religious sector
can collaborate and interconnect on commonly held values, much more
progress will be made in promoting sexual rights.
In Africa, for example, where HIV and
AIDS are widespread, religious organizations find themselves having
to deal with the disease and they are often forced to deal with human
sexuality. Instead of helping matters, the religious
have been found wanting in dealing with human sexuality due to a stiff-necked
moralistic approach to sex and sexuality. Much of stigma and discrimination
against people living with HIV in Africa has its roots in the religious
The faith based sector can certainly
serve its adherents better by incorporating evidence-based information
in a sensitive manner that advances the cause of social justice and
Overall, there is need for more collaborative
work at the intersection of religion and sexual and reproductive health
for the betterment of our societies.
Anti-choicers shame parents facing a prenatal diagnosis and considering abortion, even though they don't back up their advocacy up with support. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between defending abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others.
There’s only one reason anyone should ever get an abortion: Because that person is pregnant and does not want to be. As soon as anyone—whether they are pro- or anti-choice—starts bringing up qualifiers, exceptions, and scary monsters under the bed, things get problematic. They establish the seeds of a good abortion/bad abortion dichotomy, in which some abortions are deemed “worthier” than others.
And with the Zika virus reaching the United States and the stakes getting more tangible for many Americans, that arbitrary designation is on a lot of minds—especially where the possibility of developmentally impaired fetuses is concerned. As a result, people with disabilities are more often being used as a rhetorical device for or against abortion rights rather than viewed as actualized human beings.
Here’s what we know about Zika and pregnancy: The virus has been linked to microcephaly, hearing loss, impaired growth, vision problems, and some anomalies of brain development when a fetus is exposed during pregnancy, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sometimes these anomalies are fatal, and patients miscarry their pregnancies. Sometimes they are not. Being infected with Zika is not a guarantee that a fetus will develop developmental impairments.
We need to know much, much more about Zika and pregnancy. At this stage, commonsense precautions when necessary like sleeping under a mosquito net, using insect repellant, and having protected sex to prevent Zika infection in pregnancy are reasonable, given the established link between Zika and developmental anomalies. But the panicked tenor of the conversation about Zika and pregnancy has become troubling.
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In Latin America, where Zika has rampantly spread in the last few years, extremely tough abortion restrictions often deprive patients of reproductive autonomy, to the point where many face the possibility of criminal charges for seeking abortion. Currently, requests for abortions are spiking. Some patients have turned to services like Women on Web, which provides assistance with accessing medical abortion services in nations where they are difficult or impossible to find.
For pro-choice advocates in the United States, the situation in Latin America is further evidence of the need to protect abortion access in our own country. Many have specifically using Zika to advocate against 20-week limits on abortion—which are already unconstitutional, and should be condemned as such. Less than 2 percent of abortions take place after 20 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute. The pro-choice community is often quick to defend these abortions, arguing that the vast majority take place in cases where the life of the patient is threatened, the fetus has anomalies incompatible with life, or the fetus has severe developmental impairments. Microcephaly, though rare, is an example of an impairment that isn’t diagnosable until late in the second trimester or early in the third, so when patients opt for termination, they run smack up against 20-week bans.
Thanks to the high profile of Zika in the news, fetal anomalies are becoming a talking point on both sides of the abortion divide: Hence the dire headlines sensationalizing the idea that politicians want to force patients to give birth to disabled children. The implication of leaning on these emotional angles, rather than ones based on the law or on human rights, is that Zika causes disabilities, and no one would want to have a disabled child. Some of this rhetoric is likely entirely subconscious, but it reflects internalized attitudes about disabled people, and it’s a dogwhistle to many in the disability community.
Anti-choicers, meanwhile, are leveraging that argument in the other direction, suggesting that patients with Zika will want to kill their precious babies because they aren’t perfect, and that therefore it’s necessary to clamp down on abortion restrictions to protect the “unborn.” Last weekend, for instance, failed presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) announced that he doesn’t support access to abortion for pregnant patients with the Zika virus who might, as a consequence, run the risk of having babies with microcephaly. Hardline anti-choicers, unsurprisingly, applauded him for taking a stand to protect life.
Both sides are using the wrong leverage in their arguments. An uptick in unmet abortion need is disturbing, yes—because it means that patients are not getting necessary health care. While it may be Zika exposing the issue of late, it’s a symptom, not the problem. Patients should be able to choose to get an abortion for whatever reason and at whatever time, and that right shouldn’t be defended with disingenuous arguments that use disability for cover. The issue with not being able to access abortions after 20 weeks, for example, isn’t that patients cannot access therapeutic abortions for fetuses with anomalies, but that patients cannot access abortions after 20 weeks.
The insistence from pro-choice advocates on justifying abortions after 20 weeks around specific, seemingly involuntary instances, suggests that so-called “late term abortions” need to be circumstantially defended, which retrenches abortion stigma. Few advocates seem to be willing to venture into the troubled waters of fighting for the right to abortions for any reason after 20 weeks. In part, that reflects an incremental approach to securing rights, but it may also betray some squeamishness. Patients don’t need to excuse their abortions, and the continual haste to do so by many pro-choice advocates makes it seem like a 20-week or later abortion is something wrong, something that might make patients feel ashamed depending on their reasons. There’s nothing shameful about needing abortion care after 20 weeks.
And, as it follows, nor is there ever a “bad” reason for termination. Conservatives are fond of using gruesome language targeted at patients who choose to abort for apparent fetal disability diagnoses in an attempt to shame them into believing that they are bad people for choosing to terminate their pregnancies. They use the specter of murdering disabled babies to advance not just social attitudes, but actual policy. Republican Gov. Mike Pence, for example, signed an Indiana law banning abortion on the basis of disability into law, though it was just blocked by a judge. Ohio considered a similar bill, while North Dakota tried to ban disability-related abortions only to be stymied in court. Other states require mandatory counseling when patients are diagnosed with fetal anomalies, with information about “perinatal hospice,” implying that patients have a moral responsibility to carry a pregnancy to term even if the fetus has impairments so significant that survival is questionable and that measures must be taken to “protect” fetuses against “hasty” abortions.
Conservative rhetoric tends to exceptionalize disability, with terms like “special needs child” and implications that disabled people are angelic, inspirational, and sometimes educational by nature of being disabled. A child with Down syndrome isn’t just a disabled child under this framework, for example, but a valuable lesson to the people around her. Terminating a pregnancy for disability is sometimes treated as even worse than terminating an apparently healthy pregnancy by those attempting to demonize abortion. This approach to abortion for disability uses disabled people as pawns to advance abortion restrictions, playing upon base emotions in the ultimate quest to make it functionally impossible to access abortion services. And conservatives can tar opponents of such laws with claims that they hate disabled people—even though many disabled people themselves oppose these patronizing policies, created to address a false epidemic of abortions for disability.
When those on either side of the abortion debate suggest that the default response to a given diagnosis is abortion, people living with that diagnosis hear that their lives are not valued. This argument implies that life with a disability is not worth living, and that it is a natural response for many to wish to terminate in cases of fetal anomalies. This rhetoric often collapses radically different diagnoses under the same roof; some impairments are lethal, others can pose significant challenges, and in other cases, people can enjoy excellent quality of life if they are provided with access to the services they need.
Many parents facing a prenatal diagnosis have never interacted with disabled people, don’t know very much about the disability in question, and are feeling overwhelmed. Anti-choicers want to force them to listen to lectures at the least and claim this is for everyone’s good, which is a gross violation of personal privacy, especially since they don’t back their advocacy up with support for disability programs that would make a comfortable, happy life with a complex impairment possible. The pro-choice movement, on the other hand, often finds itself caught between the imperative to defend abortion as an absolute personal right and suggesting that some lived potentials are worth more than others. It’s a disturbing line of argument to take, alienating people who might otherwise be very supportive of abortion rights.
It’s clearly tempting to use Zika as a political football in the abortion debate, and for conservatives, doing so is taking advantage of a well-established playbook. Pro-choicers, however, would do better to walk off the field, because defending abortion access on the sole grounds that a fetus might have a disability rings very familiar and uncomfortable alarm bells for many in the disability community.
You may remember the Little Sisters of the Poor—that group of earnest nuns who challenged the process for accommodating religious objections to the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act. The Little Sisters, along with dozens of other religiously affiliated nonprofits, have continuously argued that the act of completing a form to be legally excused from complying with the law substantially burdens their religious rights.
Well, the Little Sisters remain tied up in litigation with the Obama administration over birth control, nondiscriminatory insurance coverage, and their religious objections to providing for both. But there’s more at stake here. To be clear, the Sisters are intent on doing everything they can to block comprehensive insurance coverage for their employees, and block third parties from providing it to them as well. But buried in litigation footnotes is a provision of employee benefits law that, if the Sisters and other religiously affiliated organizations get their way, will solidify another pass for discriminatory corporate practices beyond contraception coverage alone.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, is the federal law governing employee benefit plans, including retirement accounts and health insurance. Both the Department of Labor (DOL) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) are charged with ensuring ERISA compliance, which, as you can imagine, makes ERISA a prime target for conservatives who already hate “big government.”
Employer plans governed by ERISA have a few requirements that particularly draw conservative ire. One mandates that employer-sponsored retirement plans meet certain minimum funding levels by the employer. This is to help those plans be meaningful ways for employees to save for retirement, without putting the entire burden on those workers. Another provision forbids those plans from discriminating in benefits, such as matching a higher percentage of a male employee’s retirement contributions than a female one’s, or providing comprehensive health insurance coverage for men but not women. The ACA’s birth control benefit draws upon this theory.
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However, not all employers are required to follow ERISA. In particular, the statute exempts “church plans” from its requirements. ERISA defines church plans as those “established and maintained … for its employees … by a church or by a convention or association of churches which is exempt from tax under section 501 of the Internal Revenue Code.” Church plans also include those plans maintained by an organization “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” The rationale behind the church plan exemption is similar to the rationale behind most religious or ministerial exemptions to other nondiscrimination laws: Religious orders and institutions like churches and synagogues will generally employ people who follow the same religious tenets as they do because those organizations are engaged in spiritual outreach as part of their “business.”
That prohibition on ERISA governing “church plans” is also incorporated into the ACA.
Historically, organizations like the Little Sisters have had a regulatory pass when it came to maintaining retirement plans and insurance coverage that are either underfunded, discriminatory, or both. That’s because both the DOL and the IRS have been generous in their determination of how they interpret “controlled by or associated with a church or by a convention or association of churches.” And if those agencies determine that an organization has a “church plan,” that, in turn, means it won’t be subjected to a tax penalty for not complying with the ACA’s birth control benefit.
Given the explosion of religiously affiliated employers like hospitals and nursing homes, however, the scope of what does and does not qualify as a church plan has become an increasingly important issue. As religiously affiliated employers began to grow well beyond employing people of similar tenets, away from their ministerial core and into marketplace competition with secular, for-profit businesses, it has made less and less sense to allow those employers a pass to discriminate under ERISA.
At least that’s the argument advanced in a flurry of lawsuits challenging the scope of the church plan exemption under ERISA. Those lawsuits include one against Dignity Health Care, the Catholic-affiliated hospital system facing separate lawsuits related to failing to offer comprehensive reproductive health care at its hospitals. According to the allegations in the complaint, Dignity repeatedly underfunded its retirement plan in violation of ERISA. Dignity responded by arguing its plans were church plans and not subject to ERISA oversight.
Neither the district court nor the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals bought Dignity’s argument, holding there was no way that when Congress created the church plan exception, it intended the exemption to stretch as far as to shield the country’s fifth-largest health-care employer from regulatory oversight.
That question presented in the Dignity case—of just how broadly that exemption extends—could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court next term. The Roberts Court is considering a pair of cases with this exact issue at their center. Both involve religiously affiliated hospitals, and both have appellate court decisions ruling that organizations like Dignity, which are not actually churches nor actually maintained by religious orders, may not qualify for the church plan exemption.
Which brings us back to the Little Sisters, on whose cases these organizations will undoubtedly base some of their own arguments. The Little Sisters do have a church plan. And it should mean that they will never have to comply with the birth control benefit anyway—which would give them no standing to challenge the ACA’s accommodation. But this is not the argument the Little Sisters and their attorneys want the courts or the public to hear. Instead, the litigation has focused on whether or not completing the form for the birth control accommodation would be a substantial burden for the nuns, despite the fact that at this point under ERISA, there is no question that the federal government could penalize the Little Sisters for refusing to comply with the contraception benefit.
However, the Little Sisters are more than just a group of nuns. They own and operate facilities that employ and serve others. The DOL and IRS have, to date, agreed that the Little Sisters benefits plan is in fact a church plan. But that is in part because without switching plan administrators, the question of whether or not their employee benefits package still qualifies for the exemption has not arisen again. If and when the Little Sisters do switch plans or administrators, the status of their benefits exemption will come up.
At some point during oral arguments in March in Zubik v. Burwell, the conglomerate of cases challenging the accommodation process to the birth control benefit, the fact that the Little Sisters had a church plan and would never be subject to having to comply with the benefit did come up. Paul Clement, who represented the nuns, skillfully dodged the question of whether there was a church plan issue for the Little Sisters. Instead of acknowledging that fact—one even established in the record as an assumption the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was making earlier in the litigation to move the case along—Clement assured the justices the church plan wasn’t really something the Court needed to concern itself with at the moment.
Maybe that’s because Clement and the nuns were hoping that if nobody noticed the pass given Little Sisters in their challenge to the birth control benefit, nobody would notice when hospitals and nursing homes also argue for the right to provide discriminatory retirement benefits and cite Zubik for their authority to do so. Maybe they didn’t know about the fight brewing in the appellate courts over which enormous corporate entities are shielded from regulatory nondiscrimination laws like provisions in ERISA and the ACA.
That seems unlikely, though, doesn’t it?
While it may be dry as toast, the church plan exemption under ERISA is critically important. As we’ve seen throughout the nonprofit challenges to the birth control benefit, when employers are allowed to opt out, the effect disproportionately falls on poor women and women of color. And the wages offered to hospital and nursing home workers? They hardly are the kind to lift a person up to more stable financial footing. Which is all another way to say that conservatives’ assertions that institutions like Dignity Health fulfill some spiritual mission and should therefore be treated like a church are all smoke and bluster. Instead, these institutions want cover for ongoing attempts to nickel-and-dime their own workers and to discriminate, based on religious beliefs, when it comes to how and whom these institutions serve. And they’re hoping the Roberts Court will give it to them this next term.