Despite The Fights Over Religious Liberty, Obamacare Doesn’t Have To Be ‘Girl Versus God’


It’s a recurring theme among opponents of the Affordable Care Act’s birth control provision: women can either be for religious liberty or for reproductive health care, but they cannot support both.

On Monday, USA Today published an op-ed from a George Mason University law professor that suggested, among other things, that the White House paternalistically patronizes women by assuming they care more about birth control and “their sex lives” than they do about religious liberty. Because women practice religion in greater numbers than men, author Helen Alvare argues that “government’s attack on religious freedom hurts women more than men.” Alvare decries the Administration for treating all women as a uniform bloc, but she has no issue asserting that all women must be hurt by these alleged attacks on religious freedom.

This article plays on an underlying premise of mutual exclusivity — of “either-or” — between a woman’s faith and her right to access health care, especially reproductive health care. It’s an uneasy trope that crops up in other conservative articles and resources.

For example, in a video produced by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, we see the affecting imagery of three women speaking on conscience rights relating to health care. Another article suggests that the Affordable Care Act infantilizes independent young women. Another notes that since some “single moms working two jobs” are willing to work for Hobby Lobby, the craft chain whose challenge to Obamacare’s birth control mandate is headed to the Supreme Court, things just can’t be that bad.

These authors’ and spokeswomen’s opinions are theirs to hold. Their experiences are valid and theirs to speak to, and their beliefs are theirs to live out as far as the law allows. But the same goes for women on the other side.

In fact, this adversarial relationship between religious conscience and reproductive justice is a false one — and it doesn’t hold up under religious-moral or feminist scrutiny.

From a religious point of view, this either-or argument subtly suggests that “good” women or “real” women must choose religious beliefs that require them to stand by the for-profit corporations that are fighting the Affordable Care Act. It is a difficult leap from church to commerce that requires a strange understanding of the First Amendment, in which corporations have consciences and business owners — who are legally separated from their corporations — are empowered to exercise religion in a way that includes imposing their beliefs and will onto their employees’ consciences and needs.

But there are faithful men and women who recognize a more nuanced understanding of the First Amendment and the law. They believe that people, not corporations, have consciences and exercise religious beliefs, and that the law is meant to protect society’s less powerful from the will of the more powerful, especially from compulsory participation in religion. For those religious people, allowing business owners to impose their consciences on their employees’ actions raises many uncomfortable issues. As has been argued elsewhere, could a Christian Scientist business owner stop offering insurance altogether to their employees? Could Quakers stop paying all of their taxes because some of them fund wars or the prison industrial complex?

More importantly, there are men and women whose religious beliefs compel them to see the necessity of reproductive justice as grounded in their faith and, even, scriptural understandings. Many faith leaders have recognized that reproductive health care is part of a larger, contextual frame of “justice and dignity for all God’s people.” As Rabbi Dennis Ross recently explained, “…the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and other groups, endorsed the moral good in access to birth control some 80 years ago.” Many people don’t know that the the Catholic Church nearly lifted its ban on contraceptives in the 1960s. Even America’s colonial puritans were more accepting of abortion than modern conservatives are of contraception.

And more broadly, not all church groups are opposed to the health law — many have been vital partners in spreading the word about Obamacare enrollment — and activists of faith have fought for reproductive justice at the state level. That’s because reproductive justice is not inherently in conflict with organized religion. In fact, it melds with the sacred and the moral when it allows men and women’s lives to flourish more fully for themselves and their families.

From the feminist perspective, conservatives pushing an adversarial relationship between women’s religion and a belief in reproductive justice twist some of the basic ideals of those who work every day for women’s rights. They attempt to speak for all women, even claiming that women’s religiosity means that their religious liberty is being hurt more than men’s. In doing so, they ignore the voices of the 99 percent of American women who have used birth control, the almost 60 percent of women who use it for reasons beyond preventing pregnancy, and the 82 percent of Catholics who say that birth control is “morally acceptable.” Those personal experiences are just as valid as the experiences of the women advocating for their own, problematic version of religious liberty. They don’t make women less committed to preserving religious freedom, but rather speak to the fact that the First Amendment protects everyone’s conscience, not just a few.

Dissenting views from women deserve a space in the public square (here, Alvare might actually agree). But dissent doesn’t necessarily negate a whole law, even when religion is involved.

And at the end of the day, the purpose of the Affordable Care Act isn’t paternalism. Expanding access to health care allows equality and opportunity to thrive — the same purpose that drives feminists and reproductive justice advocates, and the same purpose behind the freedom of religion enshrined in the First Amendment. When conservatives argue that women must choose between religion and access to health care, they simplify the complexity and flatten the depth of many women’s — and men’s — religious beliefs and commitment to American religious pluralism.

Emily Baxter is the Special Assistant for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at American Progress.