It’s about religious liberty, not birth control

The controversy surrounding the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) mandate requiring religious employers to cover contraception, sterilization procedures, and abortifacient drugs has been framed as a conflict between religion and women. Many are painting opposition to the mandate as a war on women and their reproductive rights and health interests.
As a Muslim and a Catholic, we disagree doctrinally about the morality of contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients. As women of faith, we stand united in opposition to the mandate and the affront on religious freedom it so gravely poses.

Especially as women, we both reject the notion that opposition to the mandate constitutes a war on women.

In fact, we find the very framing of opposition to the mandate as a “war on women,” a war on women in and of itself. Such framing takes all women hostage for a policy agenda about which women are deeply divided. In recent polling, women are split 47-46 for and against the mandate.

Among Catholic women, there is deep division about the mandate. Recent polling suggests that 59 percent of the roughly 40 million Catholic women in America support the mandate. But nearly one in three Catholics do not. That means there are millions of Catholic women who, along with their church’s leaders, object to subsidizing contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs, whether they are employers providing them via insurance to employees or employees having the cost passed on to them.

Among Muslims, there are theological disagreements on matters of contraception and abortion, with more conservative elements forbidding both, while others accept both contraception and first-trimester abortion. More broadly, on the question of religious freedom, American Muslims have consistently dealt with government interference in their religious matters, ranging from mosque surveillance to overly broad limits on Muslim charitable giving, even when such measures are not needed from a national security perspective. As such, many American Muslim women stand against these and any other government incursions into religion.

Should the government be able to tell religious organizations to violate their consciences? (Katherine Frey – WASHINGTON POST) And there are millions more women–be they Mormons, Jewish, Evangelical, or Orthodox–many of whom use contraception, have undergone sterilization, have taken abortifacient drugs, or find some or all of these services morally acceptable, who still object to the notion that a religious institution should be forced into complicity with services it finds gravely immoral.

The notion that this debate and opposition to the mandate is a war on women objectifies women by lumping them into one category as if we think uniformly on all issues. Imagine the absurdity of making an issue into a “war on men” or the controversy that would ensue if it were suggested that a racial group thinks homogenously on a policy issue.

As one of us stated in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last Tuesday, “Women, too, seek the freedom to live in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs. Religious freedom is a right enjoyed by everyone, and it is just as much in women’s interest to protect that right as it is in men’s.”

As women, we are fatigued of the notion that our gender somehow thinks and votes as a monolithic block. We loathe the caricature that our primary motivations are reproductive and sexual by nature. And we are insulted by the notion that we can be played for fools with regard to the facts in this debate.

When Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned that the passage of the Blunt amendment, which would expand conscience protection for religious employers, would amount to a “contraception ban,” he insulted the intelligence of women who know that no one is proposing any such thing.

And finally, we are tired of being told that our religious leaders cannot speak for us simply because they are male. There are times when men unfairly speak for women on matters where religion and gender intersect. But in this instance, those male religious leaders are defending a principle that protects religious men and women alike.

When Bishop Lori said, “[religious liberty] is not merely a privilege that the government grants us and so may take away at will,” he was speaking for men and women of all faiths. And it’s true because it’s true, not because the person who said it is a middle-aged, celibate man.

Yet certain policy leaders walked out of the House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on the mandate where he spoke those words because the panel consisted of entirely male religious leaders. Speaking about the walkout, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked, “Where are the women?” Her question has now turned into the tired refrain of this controversy.

Where are the women? We are right here. We represent millions of women across myriad religions that find the mandate an offensive assault on freedom of belief in this country. We represent millions of women who do not want to be treated as a lump category whose thinking stops at our reproductive organs. We are the face of millions of women who object to the idea that somehow, we cannot object.

To those who would make us victims of our own religious leaders or some amorphous war on women, kindly let us speak for ourselves.

Asma T. Uddin is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and a Legal Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
Ashley McGuire is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of and a fellow at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

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