Because of, Not In Spite of, My Faith

Nancy Northup

It's human nature to want everyone to agree with one's religion or personal moral code. But I also accept that there will always be vast differences among religious and secular perspectives on life. And I believe that government should not help me or anyone else spread our religious beliefs.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a pre-election series
featuring leading voices in sexual and reproductive health advocacy,
showing how shared American values underpin their support for sexual
and reproductive health, rights, and justice. Read them all here

I was born in the heartland – Kokomo,
Indiana – and my family’s eight moves took me to places as different
as Temple, Texas, New York City, and a small town in the Sacramento
Valley. I sold Girl Scout cookies and earned merit badges. I marched
down Main Street playing the flute in my green band uniform. I was co-captain
of my cheerleading squad, pledged allegiance to the Flag, sang "God
Bless America," and went to church on Sunday. I still go to church
on Sunday. My religious faith informs everything that I do in my life,
including my chosen work as an advocate for reproductive rights as a
basic human right. I became a lawyer in large part because my faith
called me to fight for social justice and the equality and dignity of
all people. 

Some people may be surprised that this
bio belongs to such a visible and vocal voice for reproductive health.
We’re used to hearing such biographical attributes for those on the
other side of the debate, but my Unitarian Universalist faith has long
affirmed that laws that proscribe abortion are an affront to human life
and dignity. We are not alone; major religious denominations representing
millions of Americans (including the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian
Church, United Methodist Church and Reform and Conservative branches
of Judaism) support the legal right to abortion.   

The attempt to legislate one set of religious
beliefs about women’s ability to control their reproductive lives
is an offense to a bedrock commitment of America’s constitutional
democracy: freedom of religion and separation of church and state.

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Yet growing fundamentalist influence
over U.S. domestic and foreign policy is making the nation forget its
commitment to religious freedom. This fundamentalist belief–that everyone
must follow one set of religious truths–battles against a more open
view that respects differences of religious beliefs and ethical positions.

It’s human nature to want everyone
to agree with one’s religion or personal moral code. I understand
that well. I taught Sunday school each week out of the desire to pass
along my religious faith and traditions to the next generation. But
I also accept that there will always be vast differences among religious
and secular perspectives on life. And I understand, and firmly believe,
that government should not help me or anyone else spread our religious
beliefs. The government is not a Sunday school.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme
Court grounded the right to privacy in the protection of personal liberty
guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and
it recognized a notion of liberty that includes a woman’s right to make
fundamental decisions affecting her destiny, such as whether or not
to terminate a pregnancy. Since then, the Court has recognized again
and again that religion stands staunchly on both sides of the abortion
issue, and that women and men of good conscience disagree about its
moral implications. As the Supreme Court wrote in Planned Parenthood
v. Casey
, "reasonable people will have differences of opinion
about these matters." 

Given the different opinions that clearly
exist on both sides, what I find most disturbing about the public debate
on reproductive health, especially in an election year, is that the
moral case for reproductive decision-making isn’t injected into the
argument by those who support a women’s right to choose. While I’ve
heard many politicians say that they are pro-choice despite their
religious beliefs, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that he or
she supports reproductive health because of his or her faith.
Perhaps it’s because they feel those who oppose reproductive health
have already claimed the moral stronghold, and that the public can’t
accept that there could be religious grounding on both sides of the

As Americans we’ll never agree on the
validity of religious texts, but most of us agree that the Constitution
is sacrosanct. Religious liberty is tied inextricably to Constitutional
values. While the Constitution dictates that religion should not be
legislated or imposed by government, it also allows that we should have
the right of conscience in making personal decisions about when and
whether to have a child. As Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote
in Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define
one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of
the mystery of human life." This is precisely why more of us should be talking
about why our faith leads us to protect the health and lives of women
and their families. We can’t protect rights that we don’t talk about.

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: The Fight Over Voter ID Laws Heats Up in the Courts

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Texas and North Carolina both have cases that could bring the constitutionality of Voter ID laws back before the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as this term.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the state’s voter ID law.

Meanwhile, according to Politifact, North Carolina attorney general and gubernatorial challenger Roy Cooper is actually saving taxpayers money by refusing to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the state’s voter ID law, so Gov. Pat McCrory (R) should stop complaining about it.

And in other North Carolina news, Ian Millhiser writes that the state has hired high-powered conservative attorney Paul Clement to defend its indefensible voter ID law.

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Alex Thompson writes in Vice that the Zika virus is about to hit states with the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. So if you’re pregnant, stay away. No one has yet offered advice for those pregnant people who can’t leave Zika-prone areas.

Robin Marty writes on Care2 about Americans United for Life’s (AUL) latest Mad Lib-style model bill, the “National Abortion Data Reporting Law.” Attacking abortion rights: It’s what AUL does.

The Washington Post profiled Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Given this Congress, that will likely spur another round of hearings. (It did get a response from Richards herself.)

Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson writes in Bloomberg BNA that Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan thinks the Supreme Court’s clarification of the undue burden standard in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt will have ramifications for voting rights cases.

This must-read New York Times piece reminds us that we still have a long way to go in accommodating breastfeeding parents on the job.


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