Print Article | Email Article | Write To Us

Keeping Women's Well-Being Front and Center

07/01/2014 Comments (17)
Addie Mena/CNA

– Addie Mena/CNA

While many proponents of religious liberty are celebrating the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, pleased with its protection of religious freedom and analyzing what implications it might have for the Little Sisters of the Poor and other non-for-profits, they would do well to reconsider the premise upon which the mandate was based — that contraception and abortifacients are essential for women’s health and well-being. 

This has been taken for granted by many in the debate. And this week the Supreme Court justices didn’t judge whether cost-free access to contraception and abortifacent is a compelling governmental interest. Rather, the Court’s majority assumes it is for the sake of judging whether the Health and Human Service department “has shown that the contraceptive mandate is ‘the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest,’” wrote Justice Alito (on page 40 of the majority opinion).

Supporters of the Affordable Healthcare Act have said that those who do not support employer paid contraceptive use are waging a war against women.  In fact, Justice Ginsberg expressed concern in her dissent for the “legions of women who will now be without accessible to affordable contraceptives.”

The question should still be posed after the June 30 ruling:  Does restricting access to contraception harm women?  Or would mandatory and widespread provision of contraception actually do so? 

The answer is clear and is supported by both scientific and sociological data: contraception and abortifacients disadvantage women.  While religious liberty and conscience protection are some of the most important goods to protect, so is the promotion and flourishing of women.  That cannot be lost in this discussion. 

Sandra Fluke, the former law student at Georgetown University (and current candidate for California State Senate) previously testified to the Democratic members of Congress that she believes those who do not want to provide contraception and abortion are endangering women’s reproductive health.  In her estimation, women’s health should be valued above religious objections.   In a June 30 op-ed, in the Washington Post she wrote this about the Hobby Lobby ruling:

In the area of health care alone, the court’s decision allows companies to deny coverage of numerous health-care services. The majority opinion barely addresses this concern. Why is birth control — an uncontroversial form of care used by an astonishing number of women — different from blood transfusions and vaccines, which many individuals have religious objections to? Opponents of reproductive rights are trying to limit access to comprehensive women’s health care from all directions.

However, Fluke is overlooking the deleterious effects of the things she is promoting.  Medicine is designed to restore the body’s various systems to their normal functioning, so that they work in an integrated way for the survival of the human person. In this sense, birth control is not “uncontroversial,” as Fluke proposes.   The real controversy lies in classifying it as “healthcare.” 

Strictly speaking, many forms of contraception inhibit the body’s natural reproductive processes, particularly those that are frequently prescribed to women, such as oral contraceptives and intrauterine devices.  Though groups like Planned Parenthood say that oral contraceptives can provide health benefits for women, such as reducing menstrual cramps, preventing ectopic pregnancies, and reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cysts, they fail to publish that the World Health Organization classifies them as Class 1 carcinogens.  Combination pills of synthetic estrogen and progesterone are being provided to women in the name of reproductive health, but in the end, introduce substances which threaten women’s lives.

Though many proponents of oral contraceptives deny or downplay these medical facts, many have realized that the rate of unintended pregnancy has not decreased with the promotion of oral contraceptives, largely because they rely on user consistency.  In order to avoid this problem, doctors are increasingly prescribing IUD’s for their female patients in an attempt to bypass the risk of human error. However, these devices have been linked to perforation of the uterus, pelvic infections, and bleeding — none of which are symptoms of a healthy reproductive system. 

Lastly, the most obvious sign of a functioning reproductive system is the achievement of pregnancy.  After all, infertility is a sign that something has gone wrong in the body’s natural process.  Abortifacients are designed to prevent an embryo’s implantation and growth in the uterine lining.  Therefore, these drugs are not promoting health — they are suppressing it.     

If contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs do not actually benefit women’s health, why do those in healthcare continually promote them? 

Because the new narrative about what makes for a healthy and empowered women includes “reproductive choice” and the freedom to have sexual encounters outside of marriage.  While reasonable people can agree that spacing children or discerning whether or not a pregnancy would be timely is commendable, the means by which one achieves those ends have implications for women’s flourishing. 

While many people in “reproductive health” promised that contraception and abortion would reduce unintended pregnancies, provide more satisfying sexual relationships, and in many cases, and offer many women a way out of poverty, these things have all failed to deliver.  According to sociological data from the CDC, the Guttmacher Institute, and countless academic publications, contraceptives continue to be linked to unmarried motherhood and an increased rate of abortion, especially among those who are poor. 

In addition, they have yielded a marriage market in which many women who seek committed relationships settle for uncommitted sexual encounters.  These realities are the ones waging a war on women, with depression, poverty, and more dependence on the government abounding. 

Though the June 30 decision was a victory for religious freedom, it is now up to those who clearly see the harms of contraceptives to provide alternatives for women.  To truly empower women in their reproductive decision-making and in their overall health, we must create services and structures that support life-giving choices, respect for fertility, and sexual relationships which are tied to commitment and stability.  It is then that women will have the health and happiness that they deserve. 

Filed under contraceptive mandate, elise italiano, hhs, religious freedom, sandra fluke, women's health

About Elise Italiano

Elise Italiano
  • Get the RSS feed
Elise Italiano teaches bioethics in Washington, DC, and is a contributor to Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen Alvaré. She volunteers with Catholic Voices USA. She can be reached at italiano.elise@gmail.com.