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Many U.S. rabbis and ministers have long recognized the moral wisdom of ensuring wide availability of safe and effective birth control.

Written by Rabbi Dennis Ross and Rev. Tom Davis for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently responded to the concerns of some religious groups and individuals by proposing yet another plan to provide prescription birth control insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Although this HHS initiative respects religious concerns and ensures access to birth control, it received a negative response from the Catholic Bishops, just as the other initiatives had. New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explained the rejection, saying, "In obedience to our Judeo-Christian heritage, we have consistently taught our people to live their lives during the week to reflect the same beliefs they proclaim on the Sabbath."

Now, it would be reasonable to come away from these words thinking that all Jews and Christians are of one mind about birth control -- that is to say, opposed. On the contrary, many U.S. rabbis and ministers have long recognized the moral wisdom of ensuring wide availability of safe and effective birth control. Beginning in the late 1920s and the '30s, many Jewish and Protestant groups formally endorsed access, including rabbis from Reform and Conservative Judaism, and ministers from Episcopal, Baptist, Congregational, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. Clergy came forward with the support of their faith teachings, underscored by their real-life experience. The pastors were invited into the daily and private lives of congregants to witness, first-hand, that the ability to control one's child-bearing makes for healthier children and mothers and for stronger families and communities. Today, one thing is certain: Differences in religious teachings remain, and no religious group or leader speaks for all of the nation's faithful about birth control insurance coverage under ACA.

The recent HHS announcement affects employees of religiously-affiliated hospitals and the like; churches, synagogues, and mosques remain exempt. The reality is that these hospitals are not the same as houses of worship that conduct weddings or confirmations. They are not-for-profit businesses serving the larger public with secular services that are not specifically religious, like setting a broken ankle or performing an appendectomy. What's more, a hospital employs staff from all walks of life, including faithful individuals in our communities whose fully informed moral decision may lead to a conclusion that differs from the faith of an employer. Besides, these workers earn their insurance along with wages and pension. The insurance belongs to the worker; an employer's religious objection is irrelevant. A woman's private decision about her birth control has a higher moral standing than her employer's problem with her using it. And all we are talking about is insurance paperwork passing quietly through a human resources office -- no one is being asked to use birth control.

Notably, the ACA's birth control insurance provisions resemble those of New York state and California. These insurance requirements, tested in the highest courts of those states, were upheld as an equitable accommodation. And, as clergy, we emphasize that imposing a religious teaching about birth control into the private, personal home life of an American is an egregious violation of church-state separation. But all this is not enough to satisfy birth control opponents.

Arthur A. Cohen's book, The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition, encouraged a robust dialogue on our religious difference. He argues that the term "Judeo-Christian tradition" represents "a myth which buries under the fine silt of rhetoric the authentic, meaningful, and irrevocable distinction which exists between Jewish belief and Christian belief." So let's take Cohen's advice and recognize that no one religious body or leader represents all Jewish belief -- or Christian belief, for that matter. Where religions disagree, policymakers must not play umpire and pick their favorite "team." Instead, they need to respect the boundary of church-state separation, leave it to the woman to decide about her health care, and ensure her access to the safe and legal preventive medicine she decides she needs.

Cohen calls our religious differences "meaningful." So let's ditch the rhetoric, embrace the wonder, grace, and strength of spiritual diversity, and enter a full-hearted and "meaningful" conversation across denominational lines and within religious groups about pressing issues, such as addressing the needs of the poor, the homeless, and immigrants. And let's take the moral high ground by recognizing that women own their health insurance and deserve protection from the religious objections of others.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I wonder where in the Bible..... (3+ / 0-)

    .... does it say that birth control is wrong???

    •  No snark.... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      No one I've asked has been able to tell me.

      •  Much has to do with a misinterpretation (5+ / 0-)

        of the story of Onan, who "spilled his seed" (pulled out before ejaculation) rather than fulfill his expected duty of impregnating his brother's widow after the brother's death. It was not contraception per se (or even masturbation which has also been the interpretation) but merely disobedience of God's command -- when you consider that the Children of Israel were overall a pretty small group, and lives were always at risk due to war, disease or childbirth, it was important to increase the flock by any means possible. In these days of overpopulation, not so much.  

        Most mainline Christian religions have no objection to contraception, at least in the context of a committed monogamous marriage -- and in any case, they leave such decisions up to the couple involved. Mostly it's a "don't ask, don't tell" sort of thing -- the Episcopal marriage ceremony that I was married under in 1991 merely states, after all the other reasons for marriage (mutual joy, help and comfort in tragedy), "if it is God's will, the bearing of children and the nurturing of them in the Lord." (I may have the wording wrong there.) "God's will" can cover a variety of factors, and us Episcopalians have no objections to better living through science/chemistry when it comes to family planning.

        There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- goddammit, you've got to be kind. -- Kurt Vonnegut

        by Cali Scribe on Wed Mar 06, 2013 at 05:25:11 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Thanks Cali Scribe. (0+ / 0-)

          As you say,

          "God's will" can cover a variety of factors
          But since it's we, the people, who are doing the interpretation, how can we really know? I was brought up Roman Catholic, and I remember when the priest counseled my mother that if she used birth control (in this case, a diaphragm) that she would no longer be allowed to recieve Communion and would be excommunicated. Mind you, this was after 7 kids in 12 years.
    •  There are those who say (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      irishwitch, Oaktown Girl, Bernie68

      that using birth control is a violation of God's commandment to Adam and Eve, and thence to their descendants, of "Be fruitful and multiply."  It's probably a toss-up between that and the "spilling the seed" explanation already given by Cali Scribe.

      Mind you, there are any number of reasons why this is not a solid argument -- not least being that the commandment is not "be fruitful and multiply at every possible opportunity."

  •   Who's a Judio ? What's a "Judio" ? (0+ / 0-)

    Speaking as one myself ... I've always figured that a Judio was a harvest festival in which peasants on horses roped, threw and branded Rabbis and suspected pawnbrokers for cash prizes  and gaudy belt buckles.

    What I'm saying is "leave US  the h double hockey sticks out of your goyishe mishugas".

    Not only do most AMERICAN rabbis find modern contraception unobjectionable ... our Talmudists, going back to the Middle Ages absolutely permitted and often encouraged limiting family size for reason ranging from the economics of the family to the health of the mother.

    For the longest time, NONE of our teachers accorded much standing to a fetus until after "quickening" ... and even there the emphasis was the father's property rights  -- a question of money damages assessed against third parties who accidentally or maliciously caused miscarriages.

    And, if one wanted to go a little further out on an anthropological limb ... our ceremonies and customs concerning the brith (Covenential circumcision) suggests that at some point in the distant past, Jewish infants were not considered "alive" until presented to the community  9 days after birth for boys, 30 days after birth for girls  -- (and with somewhat less ceremony and celebration.)

    Now, the fact is the  Haredai  ... the Chassid/Chabad sect's ... OUR version of Fundigelical marches in lockstep with the Christian Right on several issues ...  "Choice", "Woman's Rights" and "Palestine" being three of them.

    And the Haredai certainly seem to think that THEY and only THEY speak for Real Judaism.

    Although I notice, they've not be asked to join the current ruliing coalition in the Knesset.

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