Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

It’s Not Only Religious Freedom: Why Christians Should Acknowledge the “Contraception Side” of the HHS Birth Control Mandate

Leah Seppanen Anderson


May 4, 2012

By Leah Seppanen Anderson

Over the past few months, religious leaders have framed the conflict surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) birth-control mandate as a religious freedom problem, not a contraception problem.  It is true that the sticky issue is how to work out the conflict between the freedom of conscience of religious organizations and the state’s public health agenda.  And it is understandable that Christian leaders focus on religious liberty when responding to the government’s rule and when speaking to the media, who otherwise might not report or understand this perspective.

But it is problematic when Christians, reflecting on this among themselves, dismiss the presenting issue of contraception and preventative care as peripheral to the debate.  Grassroots protest of Christians against the HHS rule has been mobilized largely through pro-life organizations. The Stand Up For Religious Freedom movement, which organized rallies in cities across the country in late March and plans another set of rallies in June, is coordinated by the leaders of pro-life organizations and the majority of their supporting organizations are pro-life groups.  The fact that the HHS mandate involves contraception, which is linked to abortion because some FDA-approved birth-control pills can be considered abortifacients, matters empirically for the mass mobilization of Christians opposed to the HHS rule.

As Carlson-Thies and others have written on these pages, the HHS mandate does raise real religious freedom issues.  These are important.  But when Christians ignore the contraception side of the controversy, we do a disservice to our fellow citizens and weaken our witness in our national community.  Let me explain.

The contraception mandate is one of several new preventative care mandates, including well women visits, gestational diabetes screening, domestic violence screening and breastfeeding support.  As of August 2012, group health insurance plans must cover these services, as well as contraception, for free at the point of service. 

Preventative healthcare is a form of public health that aims to improve the overall health of a population. This is in contrast to the individual treatment of someone’s illness, which is how we often conceive of healthcare.  Preventative healthcare can reduce healthcare costs, but it is also defensible from an ethical and religious standpoint. Christians, as people who value human life created in God’s image, should support preventative medicine to the extent that it leads to healthier lives and reduces unnecessary physical and mental suffering.

This new list of preventative care mandates forms part of a new effort to better address women’s unique healthcare needs. Women are more likely than men to report cost as a barrier to healthcare. The Administration has chosen to mandate these measures without patient cost-sharing because, from the perspective of public health, every barrier to preventative measures reduces the potential for improved health for women as a group.While Catholics and others may oppose contraception, Christians should affirm publicly the other preventative measures for the way in which they: 1) restore dignity to women by giving them access to basic care, especially in their role as mothers; 2) redress inequalities between men’s and women’s cost burden for healthcare, which often exist precisely because women bear children, and 3) attend to the poor by improving the accessibility of healthcare to low-income, insured women. 

If religious leaders, especially those engaged in the grassroots mobilizing of Christians, entered the debate with positive affirmations of preventative healthcare for women, they would more effectively educate fellow Christians about the issue and would better prepare them for a charitable conversation. Voicing support for these broader measures could also make it easier for the non-religious to hear Christian critiques of the birth control mandate and could make it more difficult for opponents to characterize Christians as anti-women or anti-poor. 

When our language and posture assumes that our interests, in this case religious freedom, are the only important interests, we misrepresent the situation and miss opportunities to learn and to love others.  Since non-exempt religious organizations like hospitals and educational institutions have a year to comply with the mandate, the conflict is not over. Acknowledging the “contraception side” of the debate does not minimize the religious freedom issue. But it could alter the tone of the debate and in that sense would ensure that our engagement on the issue is, in fact, Christian engagement. 

—Leah Anderson is Associate Professor of Politics & International Relations at Wheaton College in Wheaton, IL.

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