In the name of religious liberty, 43 Roman Catholic institutions recently filed a lawsuit against the Obama Administration, contending that their rights are violated by the health care mandate requiring employers to cover birth control in their employee health care plans. As the debate surrounding the birth control mandate has become sharply polarized between concerns for women’s basic health care – which, supporters claim, includes birth control – and concerns about religious freedom, little attention has been given to the specific moral objections the Catholic Church has against artificial birth control. Proponents of the mandate argue that Catholic hospitals and other institutions who want an exemption are imposing their religious views on their employees – Catholics and non-Catholics alike – at the expense of their needs for affordable methods of family planning (not to mention the medical conditions for which birth control is a treatment). In response, opponents of the mandate claim that they are being forced to violate their religious beliefs by facilitating a practice – the use of artificial birth control – that they deem immoral, all while they are doing nothing to prevent their employees from obtaining artificial birth control by other means.
General claims about “rights” to birth control versus “rights” to religious freedom seem to miss a fundamental point in the overall debate: the Catholic Church does not view the general practice of actively avoiding pregnancy while still having sex as contrary to its teachings, but rather the use of artificial birth control. The 1968 document officiating the Church’s stance on artificial birth control, Humanae Vitae, arguably does not follow the most conservative strain of Christian thought on sex (and Christians who agree with the document would certainly argue that it correctly interprets the Bible and God’s intentions). For instance, Pope Paul VI writes that even for couples who know they are infertile, “[the sexual activity’s] natural adaptation to the expression and strengthening of the union of husband and wife is not thereby suppressed”. Some Augustinian conservatives even condemned the document’s qualification of the purpose of sex in marriage because it fails to classify the “sexual function” as an evil merely necessary for procreation. As the line following the above quote from Humanae Vitae explains that God wisely designed the world such that births are naturally spaced out, and that not every sexual encounter results in pregnancy, one even gets the sense that Pope Paul VI considers infertile couples to be a macrocosm of what is essentially God’s method of population control.
Humanae Vitae acknowledges at length the need to space out children for economic and logistical purposes (granted, of course, the sexual partners are married – an important caveat that will be addressed below); indeed, the case made against artificial birth control in Humanae Vitae relies heavily on the soundness of the alternative method of avoiding pregnancy, “natural family planning” (NFP) also known as the “rhythm method”. Yet throughout the present birth control debacle the Catholic Church has not mentioned NFP as one of the reasons why they should not be forced to cover artificial birth control for its institutions’ female employees, even though it might make their argument far more plausible, or at least palatable, to their opponents. Perhaps the Church fears that while mentioning the potential effectiveness of NFP may help to refute the claim that artificial birth control is a basic or necessary part of women’s health care, it may thus subject its affiliated institutions to providing NFP services.
Although the text of Humanae Vitae recognizes the dual need for married couples to deepen their intimacy through sex (and only the kind that may result in children, mind you) and to plan for children, the manner in which Catholic institutions have expressed their opposition to the mandate would have you think the Church still held the position that sex should never be had without the explicit and exclusive intention to procreate.
If the Church is genuine in its concern for its religious liberty, and if it still stands by the acknowledgment in Humanae Vitae that planning and even preventing pregnancy is often necessary, acceptable and, so long as NFP as opposed to artificial birth control is used, even morally beneficial to the couple’s relationship (read: marriage), one would think NFP would be front and center in the birth control debate. Given that the Church has been relatively silent on this topic; however, the compassion expressed in Humanae Vitae for couples who want to plan pregnancies has become obscured by the impression that the Church simply wants to bolster its political influence by making itself a relevant ally to all those opposed to the Obama Administration in general and the health care mandate in particular.
Rather than articulating their moral opposition to artificial birth control, Catholic institutions instead have focused heavily on their own victimhood, shifting the discussion away from what the birth control mandate intends to address – the very real need for affordable family planning services – and onto the broader and more dubious “war on religion”. Moreover, even by conceding that they would permit birth control coverage if the medication was used to treat conditions other than sexual recreation, Catholic institutions assume that to some degree, they have the right to know private medical information about their employees. Even if NFP services were to replace the artificial birth control covered in other insurance plans, some Catholic employers might even claim their right to provide NFP services only to married women, all while not requiring their employees to be Catholic.
The liberal vision for more “planned parenthood” differs fundamentally from the vision for “responsible parenthood” laid out by the Catholic Church in that it places both the burden and the right to plan or avoid pregnancy primarily on women. The text of Humanae Vitae, however, consistently assigns the married couple this responsibility, while acknowledging that it is the woman’s body and menstrual cycle that must be assessed in order to succeed in natural family planning. The married couple is the exclusive unit charged with planning for children; no decision or responsibility in this realm falls to one partner or the other. The text begins with acknowledging that the status of “woman” has ascended to enjoy a new sense of dignity in society, and its argument against artificial birth control routinely returns to and relies on characterizing marriage as a partnership between equals.
Legally requiring employers to provide women with artificial birth control – in the name of the “rights” of women, no less – solidifies the modern liberal conception of [heterosexual] men and women as autonomous sexual individuals, where no romantic or committed relationship is thought to be necessary or requisite to a sexual encounter that may result in pregnancy. As it is the woman who risks the life-altering consequences, the birth control mandate commands that all employers not only recognize but facilitate her right to use “chemicals” to avoid pregnancy during sex as she alone sees fit.
As the argument against artificial birth control in Humanae Vitae is basically that man should not play God, lest he develop a false sense of autonomy that will result in dire moral decay, both sides of the debate tend to view the Church’s opposition to the mandate as strictly religious (and any attacks to its position as an attack on religious freedom). Of course, if we allowed for the “secular” case against birth control itself to influence the specific debate over the constitutionality of the birth control mandate, we implicitly give merit to positions like refusing to pay taxes because you disagree with the war they are funding; in other words, the case ceases to be about religious freedom and instead becomes a question of conscientious objection. The secular conception of Catholic/Christian values that are taken for granted in Humanae Vitae – such as a pre-existing emotional bond between sexual partners – never make it into our broader discussion of birth control and even sex education.
In 2012, any official government position on between whom and in what relationship sex should take place would be an oppressive and rather laughable attempt at paternalism. Yet the Church’s insistence that its institutions should use insurance that explicitly does not cover birth control – even when its staff and services are neither presumed nor required to be Catholic or have anything to do with religious faith – is pretty paternalistic as far as their employees are concerned; they basically say that women who want artificial birth control must pay for it themselves, despite having earned healthcare benefits by way of their employment. The opposing position of the Obama Administration that all women, regardless of their marital status, are entitled to birth control coverage sends the message that not only is sex both inside and outside marriage is acceptable, but all women have the right to control with any legal means whether or not they get pregnant from sex.
Put another way, however, while the administration’s requiring birth control coverage can potentially be seen as “statist”, it also solidifies the indifference and hands-off approach of the government when it comes to citizens’ sex lives; surely some Americans across the political spectrum find this refreshing after the Bush era of abstinence-only (as opposed to information-oriented) sex education, not to mention the damage done by Bush’s abstinence-only approach in aiding countries ravaged by AIDS.
For a discussion centering on a sex act that can only occur between a man and a woman, women and their bodies receive a disproportionate amount of attention and scrutiny. The comment that “gals” ought to prevent pregnancy by keeping aspirin between their knees was never balanced by the idea that men ought to prevent unwanted pregnancies by keeping it in their pants. No matter if a birth control mandate is an appropriate measure, and sex scandals with specific male politicians notwithstanding, it seems that conservatives virulently opposed to ideals of reproductive freedom simply cannot bring themselves to chastise men as in the same way they can subtly slut-shame their way through an argument against abortion and birth control. They have yet to evolve past the use of straw men and old stereotypes in discussions of social policy that have anything to do with sex or gender.
While the Catholic Church may have been onto something with their focus on collaboration between male and female partners who would like to plan for or simply avoid pregnancy, those on their side of the birth control debate tend to hold women alone culpable for any degradation in sexual morality produced by the reproductive freedom of artificial birth control. And despite the Church’s preference for the method of NFP and its restrictive ideas of how and when we may engage the “sexual function”, perhaps it is echoes of this – if not legal, then perhaps ethical – ideal of partnership that we have been hearing in discussions of father’s rights. Yet the stuffy old gender roles – those of the virgin/whore female versus the uncontrollably horny yet more rational male, wherein the former must in essence be subordinate to the latter – have, rightly I think, been exploded by social liberals, a move which actually guides our sensibility of gender not necessarily toward identical equality, but toward a powerful duality of freedom of expression and ethical fairness across the genders.
Jackie Colvin is a staff writer for The Leftist Review. She is also a freelance writer and lives in Chicago