Adam Jones / Global Photo Archive
On Monday, the Supreme Court took the position of so many dayanim (a judge in a religious court, but in the Hasidic world, also a man who rules authoritatively on everyday halachic questions) and rabbis across the world in symbolically declining women reproductive autonomy. (I use the word “symbolically” because the decision will not necessarily affect many women, if any at all.) By ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods, the five ovary-free men essentially said a person’s religious convictions trump a fertile women’s need for sanity.
These five justices, who magically grew long beards and sidelocks while I heard the news, played the part of the quintessential Hasidic dayan who is generally the person to grant or deny a religious woman the ability use birth control. Their decision evoked memories of yesteryear — of a time when I, too, believed a righteous, ovary-free man, is entitled to rule on whether and when my ovaries should be producing tiny human souls.
Just like every Hasidic woman, I anticipated joining the motherhood club soon after marriage, when my ovaries would respond to my husband’s little swimmers. The year was 2004. I was two months shy of my 19th birthday and was married for six months when two bright blue crossed lines appeared on the pregnancy stick. I was ecstatic; having a child signified entry into the adults’ club. It was a rite-of-passage for us young Hasidic girls, and one of the greatest milestones in a Hasidic women’s life after getting married.
When I brought home my 7.3-pound bundle of joy, I struggled with postpartum depression and the usual challenges of first-time motherhood. My husband and I decided to wait some time for baby number two. But the conventional methods of “waiting” were unthinkable to us naïve and impressionable youngsters. We knew that the halacha was not in favor of birth control, and that only a third party — a learned man who spent his days poring over canonical texts — could make decisions about our family planning. And so my husband made his case to the grand dayan of Kiryas Joel. Rumor had it that he was lenient and dispensed a heter (religious permission) easily when presented with a proper sob story.
Today’s ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Woods’ right to deny employees contraception coverage is a disaster both for women and religious minorities. Essentially the decision says that “closely-held” corporations – 90% of American businesses – can choose to exempt employees from contraception coverage, and only contraception coverage. The decision created an illogical barrier between women’s reproductive health care and other kinds of care, adding stigma to contraception and essentially reducing women to second class citizens.
As Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes in a blistering dissent, “the Court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood… invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faith,” adding later that, ”working for Hobby Lobby or Conestoga, in other words, should not deprive employees of the preventive care available to workers at the shop next door.”
Ultimately, there were several issues at play.
Whose religious freedom supersedes whose. Employers or their employees? A Jewish or atheist or Muslim woman who is allowed by her own faith and conscience to use hormonal contraception should be free to both do so, and be insured for it without being stopped by her employer who thinks, against scientific fact, that emergency contraception is abortion (it’s not). The uses of contraception are many, from simple birth control to severe pain management and more, and reasons a woman chooses to take the pill or another method should be private, not subject to interrogation by her employer.
Whether health insurance is salary. In America we include health insurance as a benefit that comes with salary, like vacation time and 401(k). This means the employer should be no more able to limit what health insurance covers than whether salary goes to kosher or non-kosher beef, whether a 401(k) is saved or squandered, or whether vacation is spent in Israel, Istanbul or Ibiza.
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.
The hallowed principle of religious freedom is centered around protecting the minority from being persecuted by a religious majority, as well as granting all individuals and denominations (including us nonbelievers) the right to freely practice and express beliefs.
What it isn’t meant to do, on principle, is allow bosses to subject their employees to their own whims, be they religious or social. Yet that’s unfortunately what’s up in the air in the court case where a few dozen for-profit corporations are suing the government, post-Obamacare, so they can be exempt from offering contraception coverage to their employees. Not contraception, mind you. Just health coverage that includes benefits for contraception. Because their “religion” renders them opposed to any non-procreative sex.
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.
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:
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.
Producers of “180,” a short documentary that compares abortion to the Holocaust and has been viewed 1.5 million times on YouTube, are now lobbying to show their film in high schools, reports the Washington Independent. The Religion News Service writes that Ray Comfort, the man behind the film, was born to a Jewish mother and gentile father, but had no religious practice until he became a born-again Christian in his 20s. Sadly, teen idol Kirk Cameron from the 1980s sitcom “Growing Pains” is involved with the project, too, through his evangelical ministry outreach with Comfort.
Here’s a conversation you probably would never believe actually happened if it weren’t for the links attached here. Bloggers at The Gloss debated whether or not it was a good idea to dress up as a sexy Anne Frank for Halloween. Yep!
Scientists suggest that all women, and not just Ashkenazi Jews, should have genetic testing before pregnancy, reports Time.
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).
While the economy stagnates and many additional issues ought to be at the top of their agenda, House Republicans are still fixated on policing the uteruses of America.
The “War on Women,” the name given to an onslaught of state and federal laws that have restricted abortion, birth control and women’s health care in an unprecedented way, has some particularly heartless elements.
One of its most brutal measures, the bill known as HR 358, or the “Protect Life Act,” passed the House of Representatives by a vote of 251 to 172 despite impassioned speeches from many congresswomen. Among advocates for women, it has been renamed the “Let Women Die Act.” Here is why, according to the website Jezebel, the name has stuck:
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.
I closely followed Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s piece about the inherent contradiction between anti-abortion and anti-contraception stances – stances which are often held by the same folks. Her logic is impeccable: Debra is 100% right that contraception is a rational middle ground, that opposition to family planning is absurd whatever your stance is on the morality of abortion, and that making birth control more widely available is sound public policy.
Just this last weekend, while spending time with friends who are scientists, I engaged in a similar discussion about the seemingly self-cancelling bent of the anti-choice movement. If they truly believe every abortion is murder then why, why, don’t they hand out condoms? Why do they cut childcare funding and lobby against maternal health provisions? And at the heart of it all, why not be pragmatic rather than dogmatic? Why do they work for an environment which will create more unintended pregnancies and by rational extension, more trips to the abortion clinic?
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.”
While it seems like Jewish opinion runs the gamut on condom use and birth control, our lack of a centralized authority on such matters — and our cultural and religious tradition of debating everything to death — means there’s long been a variety of pragmatic and idealistic views on the matter, mostly leaning in favor of allowing some birth control.
But for American Catholics, the fact that the Pope frowns on condoms while 95% of laypeople use birth control, has always been a fascinating and glaring disconnect. And the outrage is particularly strong when it comes to AIDS prevention in Africa and all over the world, where condom distribution could save countless lives.
Now that the Pope has entered the world of moral relativism, saying that condom usage is still a terrible, evil sin, but in some dire situations it’s the lesser of two evils, one has to wonder what floodgates will be opened.
I read Sarah Seltzer’s recent Sisterhood blog post, “An Intergenerational Battle Over Abortion,” with interest. And I’m wondering if there’s any evidence to support her supposition that young women do support abortion rights, and their contributions to the movement are unappreciated. Aside from citing one young woman frustrated with not being appreciated at a NARAL Pro Choice America conference, Sarah doesn’t offer information to back her claim that the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Do NARAL or Planned Parenthood have a breakdown, by age, of their volunteers or donors? Do the numbers back Sarah’s point?
The strongest, and most unfortunate, evidence that I see that young women are not very interested in activism to keep abortion legal is that, according to this article on Feministing, a leading organization in the reproductive justice movement, The Pro Choice Public Education Project has closed its doors for lack of funding. The organization’s primary constituency? Young women.
When my neighbor told me that “Plan B” was the name he had picked for the sports bar he was opening, I just about choked. Until I told him, he had no idea that it’s the name of the morning-after pill; he went with the name anyway.
So I thought it very clever when I saw that the National Council of Jewish Women is calling its new campaign for contraception access “Plan A.” After all, if we have a Plan A, we won’t need to get to Plan B, right? “Plan A” is an outgrowth of NCJW’s activism on women’s reproductive health and a response to the U.S. Senate’s passage, last October, of a bill that allocates $50 million of new tax money to abstinence-only education programs.