It feels like eons ago that I wrote a post trying to figure out where I stood on the “birth control mandate” in the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide all FDA-approved prescription medications to their employees, including birth control. At the time of that post, I was struggling with a tenet of American ideology and law: religious freedom. When employers said they didn’t want to do something that would go against their religious beliefs, I found myself frozen in place, as I used to be when someone said the phrase “freedom of speech” or the word “choice.” These words are very powerful in American rhetoric—they have the ability to shut down conversation that might lead to reinterpretation of their meanings. They have the power to ensure the continued freedom of the privileged while oppressing the less free. To have a true conversation about religion, contraception, and freedom, we need to free our minds and our tongues from our inherited definitions of those words, which are all firmly entrenched in patriarchy.
All of that is a very fancy way of saying I’ve reconsidered: I think contraception should be covered as a part of health insurance, regardless of the employer’s religious views. The religious argument against contraception is both ancient and two-fold: patriarchal religion doesn’t like women to have sex for their own pleasure, nor does it approve of women holding power. Affordable contraception ensures that a woman can have both, as they are intimately connected. If your personal religious views differ on this matter, that is for your conscience and your spirit to navigate—but I believe that when we are dealing with power (as we are in the case of employers and employees), the religious freedom of those with power shouldn’t oppress the freedom of those without. And that is what happens when employers don’t consider contraception part of health care.
The key word here, the fulcrum of the conversation, is power.
If a powerful white man (when we’re talking about employers in America, we are mostly talking about powerful white men) who doesn’t believe in contraception on religious grounds (something that makes me go Hmmm, since 82 percent of Catholics find birth control to be morally acceptable) decides to become an employer, he needs to check his religious beliefs as they apply to others at the door. Because he has power over others, and their religious beliefs—not to mention their lives—are in play.
Why should an employer have to pay for a female employee to have sex for pleasure, you may ask (as that, of course, is the real question). And here’s the answer: for the same reason he would pay for any other medication that affects her well-being. Contraception is a reasonable part of a healthy life, and health insurance is about health. Preventative health insurance is less expensive in the long run, and benefits employers by keeping employees healthy and at work. An employer’s religious beliefs—whatever they are—should not dictate the care his health insurance provider gives to his employees. That’s not religious freedom—it’s theocracy via capitalism. The question is, are we ready to admit that as a nation?
We’ll find out soon enough, as it looks like this issue is headed for the Supreme Court. Although the Obama administration granted an exception to churches and religious groups, that didn’t settle the matter. Private employers are fighting the mandate—most recently, a U.S. appeals court in Washington has agreed that the mandate is unconstitutional, siding with two Catholic brothers who don’t want to include birth control in their health insurance coverage. This is just the latest suit, and results have varied. Determining religious freedom here can feel like a tricky question—clearly, I struggled with it myself. But the longer you study it, and the deeper you go into history and religion and freedom, bringing their lessons into the light of the present, the clearer it gets: this conversation isn’t about the religious freedom of employers at all.
It’s about sex and women and power. It’s a conversation as old as the witchhunts, and as vital as childbirth itself—can we handle a woman who can handle herself? Are we brave enough to interpret religious freedom as something that belongs to each person’s conscience, and not something that a few men hold in a company’s coffers?
Although I’m not ready to bet the farm—or the birds and the bees—on it, I hope the Supreme Court will consider the freedom of individual women as equal to that of their employers. Otherwise, it’ll be the same old story in a new century, as the words religion and freedom will have have been used, yet again, to limit rather than expand human experience.