News Religion

Progressive Religious Leaders Seek to Shift the Conversation on Contraception and Abortion in Texas

Andrea Grimes

Last week, clergy from across the state of Texas gathered at the capitol building in Austin to show their support for access to contraception. Clad in collars, stoles and other religious garb, they stood in the outdoor rotunda to call, publicly, for legislators to stop their ongoing attacks on Texans' freedom to choose when and whether to have children.

Last week, clergy from across the state of Texas gathered at the capitol building in Austin to show their support for access to contraception. Clad in collars, stoles, and other religious garb, they stood in the outdoor rotunda to call, publicly, for legislators to stop their ongoing attacks on the freedoms of Texans to choose whether, when, and with whom to have children.

Praying together, they hailed from congregations large and small, representing mainstream Christian and Jewish denominations, non-denominational gospel and Bible churches, Catholic organizations, and Unitarian Universalist groups. 

“The vision of a beloved community requires that all women have access to safe, affordable health care,” prayed Rev. Valda Jean Combs of St. James United Methodist Church in Waco. “We understand that the emotional, spiritual and economic well-being of women are impacted by the freedom to decide when, or even if, they have children.”

It was a remarkable moment, happening in a state where the conversation about reproductive health care is dominated by conservative Christian lawmakers who tout Biblical family values while slashing family planning funding and dismantling the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, drastically reducing low-income Texans’ access to contraception despite its money-saving, freedom-enabling benefits.

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Leading the charge to change the dialogue around contraception and faith in the state is the Texas Freedom Network, a non-profit religious freedom organization which released a study this month that found that most Texans, even born-again Christians and Catholics, “support government taking action to ensure that Texas women can make their own decisions about family planning, including providing state funding for family planning and birth control programs in the state.” From the study:

Support for state funding for providing access to family planning services and birth control for low-income women is both broad and deep, crossing political, racial, generational and geographic lines. Moreover, strong support exists for access to birth control among religiously observant Texans, including both Catholics and Protestants, as well as Born-again Christians.

While conservative lawmakers seem to believe they have the force of God, the Bible and the public behind them when they gut family planning programs, it seems that in reality, a largely silent majority of Texans do not believe that having faith means eschewing contraception. And their faith leaders are speaking out on their behalf, with 371 religious leaders signing a public petition in support of reproductive health care.

“One thing that’s kept me a United Methodist is that Methodism allows me to think for myself,” said Rev. Richard Bates, a retired minister who says his faith “allows me to make my own choices as I see them.” That sense of God-given personal responsibility is what he says drives him to support publicly funded access to contraception so that Texans are empowered to control their own fertility.

“I should have no say-so in any woman’s pregnancy, to choose or not to choose,” he said. “Each case is unique, it’s theirs. I should not impose myself on them.”

Drawing a direct correlation between faith and politics, legislating directly from a perceived Biblical imperative, has come to be the norm for conservative lawmakers and politicians in Texas. That viewpoint particularly comes to life during events like Governor Rick Perry’s “The Response” prayer rally in 2011, which was promoted and executed with the full force of the gubernatorial office.

Progressives, liberals, Democrats, and even moderates in Texas have been less willing to bring their religious beliefs into voting booths and through the doors of the state’s capitol. Now, activists and clergy members are saying that that has to change, because the widespread negative effects of conservative policies are too dire to ignore any longer.

“In mainline religions, I find a reluctance to speak on issues that have any political connotation,” said Rev. Ellen Cooper-Davis of Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston. She says the focus in many faith communities is on charity work—volunteering at a soup kitchen or a thrift shop—rather than addressing the “root cause” of inequalities, which necessarily involves political activism, public policy and legislation.

In Unitarian Universalism, says Cooper-Davis, there is no divide between a feel-good Sunday morning service and a faith-based obligation to address social injustices which, she says, includes supporting access to contraception.

“We see the ability of women in particular, but families in general, to decide when or whether they want to have children as a kind of a fundamental human right,” she said. “No one should determine for you that you must be a mother, or you must have ‘x’ number children, or that your access is limited and you have to take your chances.”

The crux of the problem is that conservative lawmakers seem to be unable or unwilling to separate the concept of contraception from that of abortion, in what has become a years-long crusade against Planned Parenthood that has had the aggregate effect not of spelling death for the sprawling health care provider, but of weakening or eliminating community family planning clinics and doctors who serve low-income communities. They’re throwing the baby out with the baptism water.

But this is the price evangelical lawmakers like Senator Dan Patrick, a Tea Party talk show host and Houston media mogul, say Texas must pay to rid itself of the evil of abortion and receive forgiveness from Jesus:

“The good news is through the blood of Jesus Christ he forgives, and women who have aborted children need to know that message … I believe this can be the beginning of the end of 75,000 abortions we have every year in Texas.”

Indeed, Sen. Patrick considers himself quite the authority on matters of faith and politics; he titled his 2002 book The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read … besides, of course, the Bible.

This kind of puffed-up rhetoric is par for the course in Texas politics. Where, then, are those who say their faith demands that they work to increase access to contraception and safe abortion care, not reduce it?  The prospect of speaking out against high-ranking officials is daunting, says Rabbi Neal Katz of Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas.

“I’m one of these people who sits around, watches the religious right dominate the conversation,” he says, feeling “impotent to combat them.” He says he doesn’t consider himself a “culture warrior,” but he’s willing to “put [his] face out in public” to speak out against anti-contraception zealots. He appeared at the Texas Freedom Network’s prayer session at the capitol last week to show his support for access to reproductive health care, which he says is not at odds with the teaching of the Reform Jewish community, but in step with them.

“We know that the majority of Texans support women’s health, access to contraception,” he says. “We’re just a silent majority.” Even though he represents a relatively rural, small-town community in East Texas, an area not known for its political progressivism, he says there’s nothing revolutionary about finding ways to reduce unwanted pregnancies. He says his faith tradition “highly values personal autonomy and self-respect,” wherein “my freedom ends where your freedom begins.”

Rev. Katrina Shawgo, a hospice chaplain who attends St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Austin, says she draws inspiration for her support of reproductive rights directly from the Bible … yes, the same Bible that the Perrys and the Patricks of the world say mandates their attacks on health care.

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like we’re reading the same Scriptures,” says Rev. Shawgo. “The main message of the ministry of Jesus that I see is one of liberation and justice, and to me, contraception is tied directly, for women, to their economic liberation, to their emotional and spiritual liberation.”

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

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