Last week, my post on why Jews should care about the Hobby Lobby contraception case, and my subsequent defense of its points, caused a furor on right-wing Twitter. The collectivist principles inherent in insurance, the fact that the Affordable Care Act’s expanded coverage is associated with President Obama, and the promotion of women’s bodily autonomy is always a toxic combination for this particular crowd of angry folks.
They were mainly incensed because I put forward the idea that contraception, like all preventive health care, should be treated as a human right and therefore its cost taken on by society rather than the individual. This was received with widespread outrage frequently bordering on vitriol. “Slut, pay for your own birth control” was the most common message I received. The second most common was, “Fine you pay for my Cadillac!” I was privy to the very special ultra right wing talking point that contraception is analogous to cars. Fancy cars.
Last week the Supreme Court agreed to hear Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, two cases about the conflict between Obamacare mandates and religion. Specifically, they examine whether for-profit corporations can refuse to provide employees with certain types of contraception (those that prevent fertilized eggs from implanting), which they object to on religious grounds, as part of their health insurance. The new healthcare law requires all employers, with exception of certain types of non-profit religious institutions, to offer contraception or be subject to fines.
Naturally, the Court’s acceptance of this case has caused many to speak up against the notion of “personhood” for both corporations and fertilized eggs, and, once again, breathlessly, for women’s right to affordable and accessible contraception for the many, many health-related reasons we require it.
While the matter at hand here is, unequivocally, civil law and the separation of church and state, the case still piqued my curiosity about Hobby Lobby’s interpretation of religious texts. What exactly does the bible say about contraception? How does the Jewish tradition differ from Christianity on the topic? And how does it relate to religious notions of personhood, or when life begins?
From what I could find, there is no direct mention of birth control in the bible because birth control, as we know it today, didn’t exist back then. The closest it comes seems to be when Onan withdraws before ejaculation and God punishes him for “spilling his seed on the ground” by killing him. (Long story, but Onan doesn’t want to impregnate his wife Tamar, the widow of his brother Er, because he doesn’t want to share his inheritance with a child they they might produce.)
I asked sometimes Sisterhood contributor and always awesome feminist Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg (pictured below) to explain, over email.
Like most young, engaged Modern Orthodox women, Tova decided to go on the birth control pill when she and her husband got engaged. Tova, who asked to go by a pseudonym, visited the gynecologist, spoke to her kallah teacher, and learned about the pill from her friends. As the most viable form of birth control for halacha-observant Jews, the pill was what she expected to take until she was ready to become pregnant. She never imagined that instead of enhancing her newly married life, the pill would come close to ruining it.
While Tova experienced some nausea and short-term irritability — both common side effects for first-time pill users — she also endured prolonged moodiness and a complete lack of sex drive (that is, after she married her husband).
“It was horrible,” she states flatly now. “My period was short, but the pill made me want nothing to do with sex. And not just sex — all touching and intimacy was gone.”
After seven months of stressful, painful sex, Tova tried something highly unusual for Orthodox couples: She stopped taking the pill and started using condoms.
When Tova opened up to her friends about her situation, she realized that she wasn’t alone. Turns out none of her married girlfriends who were on the pill enjoyed sex. In fact, they dreaded intimacy with their husbands, mostly because of the physical discomfort it caused. But Tova and her husband made the rare decision to use condoms rather than trying other birth control pills, and they didn’t even consult a rabbi before making the switch.
Last week, the preventative health measures of the Affordable Care Act (also known as “Obamacare”) officially went on the books.
This was the day feminists longed for and religious conservatives dreaded: the beginning of the end of co-pays for contraception as well as ob-gyn “well woman” visits, STD testing, domestic violence counseling and other preventative measures. It was the most excited I’ve seen the sexual health community in a long time — and I should note with a smile that as the rule change rolled into effect, the religious institutions that had been lobbying so hard against it remained intact. Satan was not unleashed. Hedonists weren’t having consequence-free sex on the altars of local cathedrals and synagogues. In fact, things remained pretty much the same, except thousands of women felt a slight lessening of their daily financial burdens. Case in point, a photo of a receipt for contraception with zero charge on it began to circulate.
But then again, the change was not as sweeping as some — including me – had hoped. After I dropped off my new birth control prescription, I went online and saw that bloggers and social media buddies had run to the pharmacy to pick up pills and discovered the same old co-pay. Why? First, because the “no co-pay” rules do not kick in for those of us on non-generic birth control. Second, they have yet to kick in for those of us whose plans renew in January. In other words, most of the working world.
This post is the first in “Feminist, Orthodox and Engaged,” a series by Simi Lampert on love, sex, and betrothal in the life of a Modern Orthodox woman.
This month, 11 years after my bat mitzvah, I finally feel like a real woman. Joining the ranks of liberated women throughout the Western world, I took my very first birth control pill. Like a little child who dreams of taking the training wheels off his bike to join the upper echelons of big kids, I’d felt left out of a life-changing movement. The reasons I’m taking it might not be the typical Western experience, but I still feel a part of a larger union of women.
I haven’t needed to take the Pill yet, even though I’m 23, and that’s not because I’m not practicing safe sex. It’s because I’m not practicing any sex, and won’t until I’m married.
Right now, the main reason I am taking the pill is to prepare me for marriage, so that my cycle works with the date of my wedding; if my period is unpredictable, I could end up being in niddah (a state of ritual impurity, leaving me unable to touch my husband) on my wedding night, a nightmare for all frum brides.
Through my reporting on my recent story about “halachic infertility,” I had some frank, and often personal, conversations with rabbis, doctors, and ultra-Orthodox women about Jewish law, medicine, menstruation, and sex.
But the phone interview that made my coworkers raise their eyebrows the most was the one I conducted with Mark McGlothlin, the San Diego-based condom manufacturer whose prophylactics are favored by ultra-Orthodox families with fertility problems.
Orthodox women who are “halachically infertile” cannot conceive because they adhere to Jewish laws about when they can and can’t have sex with their husbands. These women abstain from sex for five days during their periods and then another seven additional days, after which they visit a mikveh, or ritual bath, and rejoin their husbands. Most Orthodox women have no trouble getting pregnant with these restrictions—as evidenced by the high Orthodox fertility rates.
But for women with shorter cycles, ovulation occurs before they go to the mikveh, and they can’t conceive. Even though they’re technically healthy, Jewish law has rendered these women “halachically infertile.”
The latest salvo in the war on women came from the microphone of the notoriously crass and offensive talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. Even for someone who offends as regularly as Limbaugh, his latest comments were beyond the pale.
Limbaugh has launched an attack on Sandra Fluke — the young Georgetown law student whose testimony about contraception coverage was encouraged by Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi. After being rejected by Rep. Darrell Issa as “unqualified” — Issa notoriously assembled an all-male panel to discuss the issue— Fluke spoke simply and straightforwardly to Democrats on the Hill about the problems caused by a lack of contraceptive access and coverage on campus, including severe repercussions for those who needed the pills to address medical conditions.
For this, she’s been called a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Limbaugh.
Has Jon Stewart become a flaming feminist? After a week of watching his killer segments skewering the GOP’s “War on Women,” I’m wondering if his seeming conversion is indicative of a larger turning point, if the Republicans, after a full year of assaults on reproductive rights, have finally crossed the line that gets people on the sidelines to speak up.
When I was just starting to write feminist blog posts, I wrote one complaining about the lack of genuine, women-focused discussion of reproductive rights in “dude” political culture, particularly on “The Daily Show.” While Stewart’s and similar shows tackled war and torture, gay rights and religion, I felt there was a squeamishness which curtailed discussion of abortion and women’s sexuality — and too much fawning respect for male authority figures who oppose women’s rights. Stewart’s weak interview with Mike Huckabee, in which he failed to effectively refute Huckabee’s points on abortion, exemplified this.
Then 2010 Irin Carmon, in an epic moment of reporting, blew the lid off the guy-centric culture at the beloved late night comedy news show. Her piece in Jezebel contained interviews with former employees who revealed that the onscreen “bro” culture was reflective of the shows inner workers: “behind the scenes, numerous former female staffers tell us that working there was often a frustrating and alienating experience.”
Jewish law takes a pretty liberal stance when it comes to birth control. Pretty much any rabbi will say it’s permissible for the sake of a woman’s physical, emotional or mental health, or the sake of a couple’s marriage, or the needs of a family. Furthermore, many rabbis consider oral contraceptives to be most preferable under Jewish law. That means if an Orthodox woman is using birth control, chances are she’s using the Pill.
So why did the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel ally themselves with the Catholic Church, and demand institutional exemptions on the grounds of religious freedom? What would make Orthodox organizations ally themselves with a faith group that holds opposing views on the issue of birth control?
Some have speculated that it’s about controlling women, but I believe the answer lies in something even more irrational that has been sweeping the ranks of American conservatives. It is an Obama-hatred so visceral that anything the man supports must be bad, wrong, and shot down. I say this as a Republican voter myself.
Yes, the OU (which, it should be said, welcomed the White House compromise on the issue of contraceptive coverage), and Agudath are not political institutions. But let’s face it, they represent constituencies far more likely than the American Jewish community as a whole to vote Republican.
The farce that is the controversy over the birth control insurance mandate just got even more farcical with a male-only Congressional hearing that prompted a group of female legislators to walk out.
Here’s what went down: This morning the Congressional Oversight Committee, chaired by Representative Darell Issa of California, held a hearing about whether mandating employers to accept insurance plans which cover birth control was intruding on religious freedom.
Never mind the fact that this plan had already been altered to remove religious institutions’ involvement in the contraception provisions. Today’s hearing went on, and even worse, among all witnesses called to testify (including Rabbi Meir Soloveichik) not a single one was female. Worse, maddeningly so, Issa also refused to hear from women who had used, provided or needed contraception, not even for medical, non-contraceptive reasons.
As a result, during the proceedings several Democratic women including Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C. and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, and Carolyn Maloney of New York, who had sought to call female witnesses to the stand, walked out of the hearing (some eventually came back). Holmes said it was reminiscent of “autocratic regimes,” as Sarah Posner reports at Religion Dispatches:
Online feminism’s victory in the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy — and the victory for gay marriage in California — shouldn’t obscure another fight over cultural issues that’s gearing up: birth control is going to be the hot topic in the coming days.
This battleground is the tussle over whether religiously affiliated institutions should be mandated to provide the same insurance as everyone else — that is to say, insurance that defines contraception as preventive care. At stake, practically? Whether religious institutions that are not houses of worship, but charities and institutions of learning that employ people of all faiths, will have to insure their female employees with health plans that include birth control.
Here, in The Hill, is a description of the plan from HHS:
Most healthcare plans will be required to cover birth control without charging co-pays or deductibles starting Aug. 1, the Obama administration announced Friday.
…Churches, synagogues and other houses of worship are exempt from the requirement, but religious-affiliated hospitals and universities only get a one-year delay and must comply by Aug. 1, 2013.
Women who have long supported the breast cancer fundraising organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure are today taking off their pink ribbons (metaphorically, at least) to protest the news that it has cut off funding to Planned Parenthood because the health provider it is under investigation by a right-wing Republican member of the House of Representatives, Cliff Stearns.
Komen, which was started by its namesake’s sister, former U.S. ambassador Nancy Goodman Brinker, who was interviewed by The Sisterhood here, funds breast cancer research, screening and treatment programs. Brinker is Jewish and today is the group’s CEO.
Komen last year provided $680,000 to 19 Planned Parenthood affiliates for breast health screening exams. While Planned Parenthood has been targeted for years by anti-choice protesters and politicians who have pledged to defund it because it provides abortions, the organization, which has nearly 800 clinics, is probably also one of the nation’s largest providers of affordable women’s (and men’s) health services. The organization says that “more than 90 percent of Planned Parenthood’s healthcare is preventative,” including contraception, testing for STDs and screening for cancer, along with general reproductive health care.
Pro-lifers are having a busy month. There is the Personhood amendment set to pass November 8th in a general election vote in Mississippi, with support from Democrats and Republicans, which would define human life as legally beginning at fertilization. This would render all abortions and morning-after pills illegal, and, according to some, could result on bans of certain birth control pills and in-vitro fertilization.
And just a few weeks ago the House of Representatives passed the “Protect Life Act” which would prohibit women from receiving coverage for abortion from any federally-funded insurance policy, and, potentially, abortions in federally-funded hospitals even if the women have a life-threatening condition.
The Personhood movement, as well as the anti-choice movement, in general, says that they are trying to comply with divine law, as opposed to civil law, and rely upon portions of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles to make that claim. But when I decided to take a look at the texts they say inspire these “divine” laws, I couldn’t find one place that unequivocally said that life begins at conception. Befuddling! And so I decided to email two smart women who know this stuff way better than I do, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights–North America, and Reverend Chloe Breyer, executive director of the Interfaith Center of New York, to help clear up what exactly these portions do and don’t say about when life begins. Well, it looks like some Mississippians could use a Sunday school refresher course before they go using their divine interpretations to change our civil laws. Not that Americans are supposed to be using divine law to inspire civil laws anyway (See: Constitution).
Reproductive rights have never come easy. This has been the case for every single advancement in a woman’s ability to control reproduction, all of which were initially painted as immoral and unnatural. And this is the case now, with the debate surrounding the abortion of one twin, often referred to as pregnancy reduction.
As explained in a recent article by Ruth Padawer in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, the aborting of one fetus while carrying twins is becoming a growing source of controversy in the medical community, while it can also be a lifesaver for the young mothers who elect to do it. Still though, many doctors refuse to perform the procedure, and many women who go through it are ashamed to discuss it even with close friends.
News of the Obama administration’s anticipated adoption of a health panel’s recommendation that birth control be considered preventive care and therefore paid for by insurance companies is being widely welcomed by those concerned with women’s health.
It came to mind when I read this advice seeker on the fascinating website Unpious.com. A Haredi woman in her 20s (and already a mother of five) writes, plaintively, of her terror that she might be pregnant with a sixth child. She writes that she and her husband, though Hasidic, are comfortable using birth control whether or not they have the rabbinic permission known as a heter.
While the rest of the world, Jewish and otherwise, looks at Hasidic communities where six, eight or 10 kids are the typical progeny in each family and assumes that birth control is verboten, it is not.
When I was a young adult and ready to start on the birth control pill, I found that its cost was not covered by my health insurance. Paying the retail price was onerous. It didn’t seem right that insurance wouldn’t cover contraception, though it did cover the cost of giving birth and possibly even abortion. It just didn’t make any sense.
Now, finally, the federal government is ready to rectify the situation, and make contraception more economically accessible to women and men by requiring health insurance to cover its cost.
According to this news story, the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, is recommending that health insurers be required to pay for contraception so that there is no cost to the consumer as part of “preventive health services.”
Without getting graphic about it, I remember the moment the condom broke.
It was my senior year of college. I felt eerily composed as I drove, later that same night, to campus health services to get the so-called morning-after pill. I can’t believe how calm I was; it’s completely contrary to my personality, but somehow, my brain managed to get quiet and I saw the solution.
The fact that I knew about emergency contraception (EC) was the result of having access to correct information about it — what it is, where I could get it, how it would work. I knew I needed to use it within 72 hours, and that it was safe, effective and readily available. I had no trouble getting it; there were no strange looks, derisive comments or accusations. No “conscience clause” was invoked. I also am white, was over the age of 18 and went to a large university in the Northeast. I was given two pills — one of which I took that night, the other the next day. I don’t remember any significant side effects, and a few weeks later, I got my period.
Back in 9th grade health class, we were tasked with creating — and memorizing — a chart of the various methods of birth control on the market and how effective they were in preventing pregnancy and, in the case of latex condoms, sexually transmitted diseases: We learned about oral contraceptives, barrier contraceptives, spermicides, and intrauterine devices. Among the least effective forms of birth control, we were told, was something called the “rhythm method,” which involved “charting a woman’s cycle.”
Since getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant was something we were to avoid doing — we were teenagers, after all — and since the birth control method called “rhythm” was something that wasn’t considered all that reliable a way to prevent pregnancy, we didn’t linger on recognizing the biological signs of ovulation that this mysterious “charting” entails.
The overriding message in high school and, again, in college — where, at the campus health center, condoms and prescriptions for the Pill were handed out liberally, and brochures on preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs were stacked in the waiting room — was this: Don’t get pregnant.
While I agree with all of Sarah’s broader points in her critique of the recent New York magazine cover story, “Waking Up from the Pill,” I do think the article makes a valid point about how many young women are, in varying degrees, ignorant about their reproductive system.
As Sarah points out, there are many reasons women put off having children to their mid to late 30s — from their professional and personal ambitions to the fact that they lack the financial and domestic stability required to raise kids in this country today. And it is indeed foolish to claim, as writer Vanessa Grigoriadis does — and Double X’s Amanda Marcotte points out — that women are somehow too stupid to realize that delaying pregnancy decreases their fertility.
I don’t think women are too stupid to realize this, but I do think that these issues aren’t discussed or taught as much as they should be. I know that I didn’t know too much about my reproductive system until I took a women’s studies class in college, where the true wonders of the vulva and her interior components were revealed to me for the first time. As someone who has since taken a real interest in understanding what it means to be a woman today, I have since made it my business to know about my business. But what about all the women that didn’t sign up for women’s studies classes and haven’t spent the last few years pouring over the feminist blogosphere? Where and how would they learn?
Vanessa Grigoriadis has the cover piece in this week’s New York magazine about the unintended “consequences” of the birth control pill — namely, infertility. “Inadvertently, indirectly, infertility has become the Pill’s primary side effect,” she writes. Her explanation is that women are so caught up in “sexual freedom” that oops! they forget their prime years for childbearing are before the mid-30s and, in short, end up wizened and barren and mad at themselves for their past decade of desiring consequence-free fornication. She writes: “On the Pill, it’s easy to forget the truths about biology. Specifically, that…fertlity is a gift of youth.”
A report from a decade ago shows that these trends may be even higher for Jewish women, who delay marriage and childbearing in greater numbers than does the general population. Why I do not know, but I do know that many of my Jewish friends get variations of the same pragmatic speech from our moms: “have a degree/career/publication before you have kids.”
And what’s wrong with that?