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The Religious War on Reproductive Health

When it comes to reproductive health in America, progress often seems like a one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of situation. But let’s start with some rare good news: in January, the Obama administration announced that most employers would have to cover birth control in their employee health plans with no co-pay – enraging religious groups, which had hoped for a broad exemption for church-run businesses.

This rule is a straightforward application of anti-discrimination law. Churches, which inherently cater to people of similar religious views, can set whatever rules they like for themselves and their members. But if those churches run institutions, like charities or hospitals or schools, that serve the general public, those institutions don’t get special exemptions from generally applicable law. There should be nothing remotely controversial about this principle, but it’s provoked an epic wave of whining from Catholic clergy and right-wing pundits that their “religious freedom” is being trampled.

Since no one is being forced to use contraception, this seems like a nonsensical complaint. But it makes perfect sense if you assume that what the church officials mean by “religious freedom” is “the right to prevent other people from using contraception”. After all, if it was only individual religious freedom that was at stake, it wouldn’t matter what a health insurance plan did or didn’t cover. Observant Catholics wouldn’t seek prescriptions for the pill, and that would be that. What the bishops are in effect saying is that, because they employ someone, they should be allowed to exercise a veto over that person’s reproductive health decisions.

This is the same thing as pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills: they interpret “religious freedom” not to mean, “I will not use birth control because my religion says it’s not OK”, but to mean, “I will not allow you to use birth control because my religion says it’s not OK”. They’ve twisted a person’s individual right to abide by whatever beliefs they see fit into an aggressive demand to control the behavior of others. (Does this sound familiar?It should.)

But as I said, the Obama administration showed a rare glimpse of backbone and didn’t give in to the theocrats, and for that I applaud them. Even if they only did this because they need to rally their base in an election year, as I strongly suspect, it’s still a move worth applauding. Half a cynical loaf is better than none.

Now, the bad news. As you’ve probably heard, the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the largest group supporting breast cancer research in the U.S., has announced that they’re discontinuing grants to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening at PP clinics. According to Komen, the official reason for this is a new policy that they won’t support any organization that’s under investigation by the government, which Planned Parenthood currently is – a Republican congressman has demanded they produce a decade’s worth of records for no discernible reason. This is a policy which just begs anti-choice officeholders to launch more nuisance investigations to ensure the continuing cutoff of support.

But more likely, this is just a fig leaf for the real reason: Komen was under intense pressure from the religious right to stop underwriting Planned Parenthood, even though their support goes solely to providing breast exams and cancer treatment, and they caved in. But if they thought this decision was the politically safe one, I hope we can show them that they’ve made a very costly mistake. (Remember the story of that other charity that wouldn’t take donations from atheists?)

If nothing else, this story should silence once and for all the pundits who speak in high-minded platitudes about how religious conservatives and liberals should stop fighting and unite around the cause of reducing unwanted pregnancies. That condescending rhetoric assumes that the religious right genuinely cares about the well-being of women. But as this story shows, the religious right doesn’t even want to treat women who have cancer, if they can’t have their way on outlawing abortion. Their goal isn’t improving women’s lives; it’s making sure that women conform to patriarchal norms of behavior, and they’re perfectly happy to see women suffer and die to punish them for perceived transgressions of those norms. (The anti-choicers’ promotion of a junk-science claim that abortion causes breast cancer is another example of this life-as-morality-play thinking. Ironically, giving birth does cause a slight increase in breast cancer risk, but see if they ever mention that.)

If you’ve ever donated money or time to support Komen, I urge you to never do so again. Give the money directly to Planned Parenthood, or to one of the other national groups that fund breast cancer research and treatment, and be sure to contact Komen and tell them why. If you need additional reasons not to donate to Komen, Blag Hag has a list, including their “pinkwashing” of harmful products, their inflated administrative costs, and their support of non-evidence-based alternative therapies.

This story speaks clearly to the religious right’s strategy, which is to isolate Planned Parenthood and other reproductive health providers and cut them off from all societal support. If contraceptives and abortion care are separated from all other kinds of medical care, it makes it that much easier to demonize them and shame women who use them. The fact that Planned Parenthood offered breast cancer exams, an undeniably necessary and beneficial medical service, must have enraged them. (When Senator Jon Kyl said that abortions are over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does, he later had to acknowledge that this was “not intended to be a factual statement” – but it clearly reflects what the religious right wants to be true.) They’d rather see women get no medical care at all than get it through Planned Parenthood, which is why they’re doubtlessly celebrating tonight. The best thing that pro-choice advocates can do is to publicize, as widely as possible, their willingness to jettison women’s health and lives in the service of that ideological crusade.

UPDATE (2/4): I have to admit, I didn’t see this one coming: Facing a flood of bad publicity and criticism, Komen has completely backtracked and announced that they’re not barring Planned Parenthood from future grants after all. They continue to insist that the original policy change wasn’t politically motivated, which is an obvious lie – but even taking that into account, this is a solid and unambiguous victory for pro-choice advocates. Applause all around!


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