Last week the House convened a special panel to investigate the portion of the Affordable Healthcare Act that requires all employers to provide access to contraceptives for female employees. This came after an inane and archaic tantrum by members of the Catholic Church, and the sophomoric adoption of the cause of “religious liberty” by GOP candidates vying to be the decider of the United States. The committee, chaired by Darrell Issa, a republican from California, invited five men to testify. All were, apparently, religious authorities, and all were opposed to birth control.
Much has been written about the lack of women on a panel that ultimately was convened to discuss women’s health (see LA Times and Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel to get caught up on the controversy). When women came to the hearing ready to testify on the benefits of preventive medicine to women’s health, Issa blocked them from participating, stating that they weren’t “religious experts” and members of the clergy, the way that his five hand-chosen panelists were. Women, and men, have been up in arms about the exclusion of a female voice from the proceedings, as they rightfully should be. But much of the outrage has been focused on the medical arguments, or claims of individual and privacy rights. Issa’s claims for male religious authority sent chills down my spine, and has implications beyond state control of my uterus.
Implicit in this hearing, and the larger debate surrounding female reproductive rights, is that women are always part of a secular world. It is men who understand, define, and apply the word of god for women to follow. Issa’s failure, or Freudian slip, in convening his panel was not that he failed to bring in women’s health experts. If we accept Issa at his word that this hearing was about religious freedoms, then his failure was that women were excluded from determining the role of religion and the character of religious freedom in the United States.
We are seeing this same mindset in most of the main-stream discussions about the role of religion in American life, particularly as the presidential primary grinds on and candidates vie for the support of the most conservative votes in their claim for authenticity. In these discussions, women are not seen as holding religious views in and of themselves, but instead should live under a particular religious doctrine imposed on them by a male hierarchy. As one friend so succinctly stated, these “ sects not only frame women as subordinate to men, but basically as weed-prone domesticates in need of cultivation.” This ideology is one that generally elevates the female ability to reproduce (preferably male children) over our abilities to produce intellectual and physical things of value to society. By being relegated to such a status strips women of any moral arguments that can be made on their own behalf, or the behalf of others.
John Stoehr wrote earlier this week in AJE that the Catholic Church’s new found crusade against the mandate for women to have access to preventive reproductive related medications is not about birth control itself, but about consolidating the Church’s power. The same process of consolidating power is seen in other denominations, and by politicians who stand on a platform of “traditional values.” Women are given a choice to either follow religious dogma, or be labeled anti-church, anti-tradition. That is not an acceptable dichotomy. While men seek control of women’s bodies through the apparatus of the state while claiming religious liberties, the religious convictions of women are also being circumvented, and institutionally defined. As humans equal under the law, women need to have the final word over our own bodies. There is no moral, ethical, or legal argument that can justify the splintering of basic rights for an individual to have complete control over their own person. As humans equal under the eyes of God, however one may define it, we also need to have the final word over our own belief systems. Women can decide how our faith intersects with our daily lives, including our reproductive health. The war being fought on this front by self-appointed religious experts is not just about the separation of church and state, it is about the separation of women from both church and state, and our relegation to second-class status.