I was ten years old when the Supreme Court recognized that married women had a right to contraception. I was 18 years old when Roe v. Wade was decided. It is inconceivable (pun somewhat intended) that 40 years later, it’s still necessary to advocate for women’s rights to basic family planning services, even after I’ve reached an age where I no longer personally need them.
You probably know that last Friday, the Obama administration released proposed regulations on contraceptive coverage in the Affordable Care Act, having taken nearly a year to develop them after their initial announcement. As one observer said to me with a smile, “if it’s February, it must be contraception.” The proposed regulations, as Sally Steenland of the Center for American Progress wrote, allow religiously affiliated institutions as defined by the Internal Revenue Code to opt out of the contraception requirement while assuring coverage for women “strengthens religious liberty while safeguarding women’s health.”
Yet, those who oppose birth control access for women continue to hide behind false cries of religious freedom and religious liberty in their efforts to deny women coverage to basic preventive health care services. According to the Center for American Progress, more than 40 lawsuits “have been filed in the past year against the administration on behalf of religiously affiliated institutions that object to the contraception requirement.” When the Obama administration released the proposed regulations, it was widely reported that religions institutions opposed it. However, Roman Catholic leaders who oppose the coverage of contraceptive services were the only religious voices quoted in many prominent articles like this one from the New York Times.
The vast majority of religious leaders—indeed the vast majority of people of faith—who support contraceptive access were not included. More than a dozen major religious denominations have policies that support contraception. Nine in ten Americans say that birth control is morally acceptable, including 82 percent of U.S. Catholics. The vast majority of women of faith at risk of unintended pregnancies—including Catholic, Jewish, Mainline and evangelical Protestant women—use contraception. These numbers affirm that a broad majority of people of faith in the United States support access to contraception, despite the protests of Roman Catholic leaders who have fought the coverage of birth control during the past year with threats and lawsuits.
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Religious freedom and religious liberty are only protected when laws do not privilege the teachings of one religion over another, and when every person has the moral right and responsibility to make his or her own decisions about procreation, including family size and spacing of children. Religious freedom means that each woman must have the right to accept or reject the principles of her own faith, without restrictions. No single religious voice can claim to speak for all religious people in this debate, and the public media should make sure that all religious voices are included in its coverage.
Today, more than 1,000 religious leaders from across the theological spectrum have joined together to support safe, affordable, accessible, and comprehensive family planning services by endorsing the new Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Family Planning. This statement affirms that all women must have equal access to contraception, and notes that “there are religious foundations for affirming safe, affordable, accessible, and comprehensive family planning services.”
These one thousand plus leaders come from 45 states and more than 35 religious traditions, including each of the major mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations, plus Southern Baptist, Roman Catholic, and Muslim traditions. They include current and former presidents of national denominations, seminary presidents, seminary faculty, leading theologians, and the heads of more than twenty national religious organizations.
These leaders have endorsed a statement that calls for all people to have equal access to contraception and advocates for increased U.S. financial support for domestic and global family planning. They affirm that the government has an obligation to ensure access to family planning services and supplies, and state that “the denial of family planning services effectively translates into coercive childbearing.”
Unlike those who are seeking to deny women contraception in the name of religion, we know that religious leaders and people of faith have supported modern methods of contraception since the early 20th century, and that they continue to do so today. We share an obligation to resist any attempts, political or religious, to restrict or deny access to family planning services. Over 1,000 religious leaders agree, and more are speaking out every day. They know that contraception saves lives, promotes human flourishing, and advances the common good.