When did evangelicals start caring about birth control?
Posted on January 11, 2013
In light of Hobby Lobby’s decision to defy the Affordable Care Act and refuse to allow their insurance company to provide their female employees with emergency contraception, I have a question: when did evangelicals start caring about birth control?
I grew up in some pretty conservative church communities. I know what it’s like to not be allowed to celebrate Halloween because it’s the Devil’s holiday, and to not listen to secular music because it could “give the devil a foothold,” and to wish there was a group in town that picketed the local Planned Parenthood because I would have totally gone.
The messages and rules that I was taught by my ministers, youth pastors, and missionary leaders were countless and specific. If something was of the world, I knew I wasn’t supposed to do it. No swearing, sexing, drinking, drugging, gambling, lying, cheating, any other bad thing.
There was one thing that I never, ever heard in that list: no birth control.
I never once heard from a spiritual leader that birth control is a bad thing, or that it causes abortions, or that it damages the collective psyche of the American public–all of which I have recently read on evangelical pro-life blogs. Instead, I was taught that birth control was something married couples could use if they wanted/needed to delay having children. Sex, I was taught, was a good and wonderful thing, created by God to strengthen a marriage. It wasn’t just about procreation–sex was about pleasure as much as it was about creating children. Even a recent Christianity Today blogger explained that contraception was a saving grace in their marriage.
While I attended a Christian college with a fairly conservative student body, plenty of my friends who were waiting until marriage went on birth control pills in the months before their weddings. Let me make this clear: this wasn’t some liberal Christian university where denominational affiliation was some outdated thing that was referenced once at graduation and hidden somewhere on the school website. This was a place where I had a professor or two pray before classes. We all attended chapel three times a week. This was a university where you could get called “not a real Christian” by a peer for watching The Simpsons in the dorm lounge. A friend of mine recently told me that while she was a student there, someone confronted her about the fact that they’d heard a RUMOR that she’d been swearing! Clearly, this was a place where conservative ideas were the norm, yet I never once heard anyone question or attack someone for their decision to use birth control, whether that was the pill or condoms.
In fact, when Plan B was first becoming a talking point in the early 2000s, some of my college friends and I sought to find out whether it really caused abortions and learned that it doesn’t. RU-486, “the abortion pill,” does. That’s why RU-486 is prescribed: to cause an abortion. Although we often heard people group Plan B in with the abortion pill as equally bad, we tried our best to correct people when we heard their error. “Actually, Plan B is a contraceptive, not something that causes an abortion. It cannot harm an established pregnancy,” we’d say. RU-486 ends a pregnancy. Plan B prevents one.
I always believed that people who were staunchly opposed to Plan B simply didn’t understand how it works because of confusion on the timeline of things. For most Christians, pregnancy might begin at conception, but people need to realize that conception doesn’t necessarily happen at the moment of sex. It can happen hours and days afterward. That’s why a pill taken after sex can prevent pregnancy.
In 2010, the journal of the Catholic Health Association explained its findings that Plan B is, in fact, a contraceptive and not an abortifacient. If even Catholics argue that something doesn’t cause abortion, it probably doesn’t, you know?
There were always fringe groups, of course–people who believed rather extremely that the Pill causes abortion, or is sinful, or people who linked all birth control usage with sexual depravity. These were considered to be the weirdos, though. The outliers. They were the people that totally mainstream pastors would laugh off as ridiculous legalists.
All of this is why I have been so surprised at the vitriolic response to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
I already have enough trouble understanding why so many Christians are against a policy that gives more people access to health care. It seems like “more health care” should be in the top tier of Christian political issues, and that anything that allows for that to happen should be celebrated and lauded by believers. Jesus was a healer–through his actions we can see that he wanted people to be made physically whole in addition to spiritually. Why on earth would we be against policies that give more people the chance to be physically whole? Does it really matter if it costs a lot of money or increases the wait times of people who already have (possibly crappy or possibly awesome) medical care?
I have even more trouble understanding the reaction against the contraception mandate, which requires insurers to categorize contraception as a preventative drug and therefore provide it without copay. I get that most Christians only want to condone birth control when it is used in the context of marriage, but why be so vitriolic against men and women who choose to use birth control outside of marriage? (Any Christian who found themselves siding with Rush Limbaugh in his rants against Sandra Fluke is guilty of this vitriol.) Isn’t using birth control the responsible to do, even if you don’t think the sex itself is morally acceptable? If Christians want to see the abortion rates drop, they should be getting behind any policy that provides birth control to people who are having sex. Providing free birth control to anyone who wants it can reduce the abortion rate by up to 80%! Why would any Christian be against that?
I’m very uncomfortable with the number of Christians I see arguing against the contraception mandate. It’s one thing to think it’s because it covers abortion–we can simply prove that it doesn’t and move on. But more than that, I see them making a judgment call. I see anger toward women who choose to use birth control regardless of whether or not they are married. I understand that Christians tend to view sex as best between a married couple only, but why should that make us hateful toward people who don’t value the same thing? Why, when we realize that our health insurance premiums are covering someone else’s birth control, should we say, “I don’t want to pay so you can have sex!” We don’t say that about anything else that our premiums cover. Can you imagine someone saying, “I don’t want to pay so you can treat your asthma when you have an attack from being around something you’re allergic to!” “I don’t want to pay so that you can treat your carpal tunnel syndrome! Stop typing so much!”
No one says those things. Or if they do, they need to fund their own healthcare altogether so that they’re not chipping in toward anyone else’s care with their premiums.
There are a few things I wish I could fix here.
- I wish I could show people that emergency contraception does not cause abortion. It prevents ovulation. Without ovulation, there is no pregnancy or embryo to abort! The whole “maybe it prevents implantation of a fertilized zygote” is still a problematic point of view because there is no real evidence that that’s what it actually does.
- I wish some Christians weren’t so blinded by their fear and hatred of Barack Obama that they reject anything proposed by his administration, even if it guarantees that the abortion rate will be lowered.
- I wish we wouldn’t phrase this as an issue of religious liberty because the ACA “requires businesses to pay for abortion-causing drugs,” even though we’ve already demonstrated that: a) the ACA contraception mandate does not cover any abortion-causing drugs, and b) the insurance companies are the ones providing medical care, not the employers.
So, when DID evangelicals make this switch to getting worked up over contraception? In an attempt to combat the Affordable Care Act, they seem to have been willing to pick up an issue that has simply never been important to them before. It feels really disingenuous to me. One of the things that I usually say the church has going for it is being genuine and honest in its intentions. Usually I can say, “Well, at least they mean what they say.” This time, not so much.
By clinging to this political issue despite the fact that it doesn’t make sense scientifically, theologically, or historically, it really makes the church look bad, and that is pretty painful.