Chicago Press Conference on Birth Control Access


“Corporations are people…women, not so much.”

Congressman Mike Quigley summed up the mindset of some of his coworkers in the House of Representatives thusly at a press conference on Friday, February 24, held to address coverage of contraceptives under the Affordable Care Act.

The Obama administration’s birth control mandate, which requires all employers, with the exception of 350,000 houses of worship, to provide insurance that covers all FDA-approved contraceptives with no co-pay, co-insurance or deductible, has been met with a forceful backlash from religious conservatives. Even after the administration modified the rule to allow religious-affiliated employers to pass the coverage requirement onto the insurance company rather than provide the coverage themselves, anti-choice politicians, fueled by powerful lobbying groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, refused to back down.

Suddenly, birth control, a medicine that has been legal since 1965, has become the surprising subject of a national debate, placing a woman’s most personal medical decisions at direct war, according to its detractors, with religious freedom.

In response to that backlash, Illinois members of Congress, as well as representatives from Planned Parenthood of Illinois, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, ACLU of Illinois Reproductive Rights Project and Catholics for Choice, as well as women who have themselves taken birth control for medical reasons, gathered at the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple to speak out about the legal objections to the birth control mandate.

“Today is February 24, 2012,” began Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. “Not 1912, not 1812. It’s inconceivable to me that there is any controversy about access to birth control.” As she correctly noted, the Centers for Disease Control cites family planning as one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century.

The now-infamous hearing of The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which featured the testimony five male religious leaders and zero women, repeatedly insisted that the debate was not about birth control, but about “religious freedom.” (In fact, they refused to allow women to testify because they “lacked the expertise” to speak about birth control.) And though the intent behind that statement is false—as Rep. Quigley pointed out, the entire hearing revolved around the morality of birth control—its may actually hold a kernel of truth.

After all, by making the debate about religious freedom, a conversation that was intended to be specifically about birth control suddenly has larger implications. People of faith may object to—or claim to object to, in the interest of denying their employees’ coverage—any number of medical-related issues. Imagine that an employer was opposed to treatment of HIV/AIDS, or treatment of LGBTQ people, said Rep. Quigley. Imagine that an employer objected to black people in their company, or objected to women working outside the home, said Lorie Chaiten, director of ACLU of Illinois Reproductive Rights Project. Or imagine that your Jehovah’s Witness boss objected to blood transfusions, or your Scientologist boss objected to psychiatric drugs – both beliefs held by those religious groups. Under the amendment proposed by Senator Roy Blunt, an employer may refuse to provide insurance that covers any—any—health service to which they claim a “moral objection.”

By making the law broad enough to cover their own biases, the lawmakers have opened a Pandora’s box of possibilities, in which employers are allowed to determine what medical services their employees may and may not access.

As history has taught us time and time again, “faith” can be used as justification to object to, or support, any number of things that go against science, medicine or the public interest. (The Catholic church was even officially opposed to the Rhythm Method as a tool of pregnancy prevention until 1951.) And that’s something with which everyone, not just the 99% of American women and 98% percent of American Catholic women who will use birth control at some point in their lives, should be very, very concerned.

As Ms. Chaiten noted, this Act and other proposed bills like it are “wrong as a matter of law. Organizations that operate within the public sphere have to follow public rules. Taking a job is not the same as joining a church.”

Employers and employees can’t opt out of laws referring to minimum wage, taxes or worker safety, Ms. Chaiten pointed out. And precedents, including an Amish person who didn’t want to follow social security laws, and a barber who “didn’t believe in secular authority” and so didn’t file a license for his business, show that the law comes down on the side of the public good, not the religious individual; in those cases and others like them, the people of faith were ordered by the courts to comply with the law of the land. These precedents conclude unequivocally that “employers are not at liberty to impose their beliefs on innocent third parties.”

We heard from many compelling voices at the press conference: A young woman whose inability to afford birth control resulted in cramps so painful that she passed out on the 10th floor of the Wrigley Building and bought herself a $2000 ambulance ride to the hospital; Sara Hutchinson, domestic program director of Catholics for Choice, who made an impassioned plea to listen to the voices of mainstream American Catholics who support contraception and a person’s right to make their own medical decisions; Rev. Larry Greenfield of Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, who argued that since a ban on modern contraception leads to more abortions, makes women more vulnerable, makes families suffer more hardships and leads to more sexual disease and deaths, it is actually contrary to the need for personal responsibility preached by most religions; and Dr. Tara Kumaraswami of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, who pointed out that for women who face medical complications, “avoiding unintended pregnancy is a matter of life and death,” and contraception “allows women to plan and space their pregnancies so that they can continue their education, pursue their career, support their family and reach their life goals.”

However, that conclusion, that “employers are not at liberty to impose their beliefs on innocent third parties,” is truly at the heart of this debate. It goes directly to the question of where one person’s religious freedoms end and another’s freedoms begin. It answers the question of what happens when religious beliefs conflict with medical recommendations. (The Obama administration’s birth control mandate follows recommendations by the Institute of Medicine.)

Across the country, federal and state politicians are introducing laws that further and further infringe on a woman’s right to make the most personal and private medical decisions with only the counsel of her doctor. This is not ok. Our own biases and beliefs do not belong in medical examination rooms or surgical wards. Our faith-based convictions, however strongly held, do not belong in other people’s bodies.

When faith, fear and shame begin to infringe on medicine, things previously thought unimaginable happen. The Washington Post recently ran an article on how Virginia’s “state-sponsored rape” bill, which would have required women seeking abortions to undergo an incredibly invasive transvaginal ultrasound, nearly came to pass. The politicians behind the legislation, which was specifically aimed at dissuading women from obtaining a safe and legal medical procedure, crafted the bill without first consulting medical experts. That is, they were writing legislation that would affect women in the most physical and visceral way, but yet had no idea what they were actually writing into law. When the politicians–and, more specifically, the public–learned what the bill would actually require, it crumbled under scrutiny and reason.

Right now in Illinois, two anti-abortion measures have been passed out of the Illinois House Agriculture Committee, a group that usually comes nowhere near health and medical related legislation. The tactic by the Illinois House of Representatives, now in its second year, has inspired some pro-choice advocates to adopt the slogan, “Women are not livestock.” The two proposed bills involve mandating what doctors must offer their patients, and the medical standards a facility must meet to administer abortions–standards no facility providing non-abortion surgical procedures are required to meet. That our government has and is turning women’s health into a three-ring circus of religion, fear of women’s autonomy and medical misinformation is something that should not be allowed to stand. (Rep. Kelly Cassidy, in protest of the two bills and the way they are being handled, introduced an amendment that would require that men view a video of the treatment for the most severe side effects of Viagra before they’re granted a prescription. “It’s not pretty,” Rep. Cassidy said. “No one wants to see that.”)

That a woman’s medical decisions are at odds with someone else’s religious beliefs is not that woman’s problem. Nor should she have to pay, out of pocket, a penance for those imagined sins.

As Rev. Greenfield concluded at the press conference: “Contraception is the responsible thing to do. Providing access to contraceptives is essential to get personal and public health, and it’s good public policy. My message to male colleagues: man up. Don’t let women wage this war by themselves.”

Click here to view Planned Parenthood Action Illinois’ list of endorsed candidates in the 2012 Illinois primary.

UPDATE 2/28/2012: The Viriginia Senate has passed a modified version of the mandatory ultrasound bill. It now goes to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell for his signature.


About Cassandra A. Gaddo

Cassandra A. Gaddo is managing director of Step Up Women's Network in Chicago. A passionate advocate for gender equality and the advancement of women and girls, she is also a board member of Rape Victim Advocates, and a Young Professionals Ambassador for The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She writes and speaks about local, national and international women's issues, including in her blog, "Twice As Well."