Rhetorical and legislative attacks this year on women’s health and reproductive rights—known as the war on women—have had real and dire effects on women and their families. These attacks have been waged across the country, whether through attempts to restrict women’s access to contraception or cut off funding for Planned Parenthood, through numerous state restrictions on abortion such as state-mandated, medically unnecessary ultrasounds and abortion waiting periods, or through prohibiting insurance companies from including abortion coverage in their policies. Despite these challenges and setbacks, women and health advocates have made their voices heard, fighting hard to protect their health and their rights. Here are 12 victories faith leaders have helped win in the fight for reproductive justice for all.
1. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, women have access to contraception at no cost, enabling them to make important decisions about becoming a parent according to their conscience. On August 1 a provision of the Affordable Care Act went into effect that requires women to have access to a range of preventive health services at no cost. All health care plans are now required to include annual well-woman visits; screenings for gestational diabetes and HIV; testing for the human papillomavirus, or HPV; and breastfeeding support, among other services. The new law also requires coverage for all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraceptive methods and family planning counseling for women. It includes a religious exemption for houses of worship and related institutions that morally object to contraception, and it makes provisions for religiously affiliated institutions with similar objections by offering contraceptive coverage directly from the insurer. By allowing women to make decisions based on their conscience on key matters of family and health, the Affordable Care Act was a monumental victory for both women’s health and religious liberty.
2. Religious leaders and denominations defend their support for family planning. Although religious women and men have long supported and used contraceptive services in the United States, the onslaught of attacks from conservative politicians and leaders spurred many religious leaders to stand up and defend contraception as a moral choice. Leaders of national Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations released a public statement that affirmed the importance of access to contraception and their support for the Affordable Care Act provision. A coalition of evangelicals also voiced their support for contraception in a 15-page document that defended family planning on religious grounds and as important to the health of mothers and children. Polls show that almost all of America’s major religious denominations support contraception. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of sexually active religious women who do not want to become pregnant are using a contraceptive method. Eighty-eight percent of evangelicals support contraception, as do 82 percent of Catholics.
3. Several states have moved away from abstinence-only programs toward more comprehensive sex education. As Mississippi struggles with the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the nation, nearly half of the state’s school districts are taking advantage of a measure that went into effect this year. The measure allows districts to adopt “abstinence-plus” education that will add mention of some forms of contraception to the curriculum. In Utah, Gov. Gary Herbert (R) vetoed an abstinence-only bill that would have made all sex education classes “opt-in” instead of “opt-out” and that would have prohibited any discussions of contraception or homosexuality. Passing such a law would have made Utah the first state to specifically ban instruction about contraception. More than 40,000 individuals signed a petition urging Gov. Herbert’s veto of the bill, and 58 percent of poll respondents supported the teaching of contraception.
4. The Unitarian Universalist Association made reproductive justice a denominational priority. At this year’s national conference, the Unitarian Universalist Association voted to make reproductive justice their next issue for congregational action and study. Over the next four years, Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country will study, reflect on, and act on issues of reproductive justice. The church has already produced in-depth study and reflection materials on the issue.
5. The global United Methodist Church voted to support maternal health in the United States and around the world. At their convention this year, the denomination’s representatives voted to support a petition outlining the church’s role in reducing maternal and infant mortality and lowering health and cultural barriers to health services for women. The petition also called on congregations to support international and local health initiatives that provide information and services for women’s health and to urge policymakers to increase access to maternal health and family planning services.
6. Faith Aloud, a religious counseling organization, organized a prayer campaign to support women. In response to the barrage of verbal and legislative attacks against women, Faith Aloud created a 40 Days of Prayer to Stop the War on Women campaign, which called for women to be treated with respect and dignity and for compassionate religious voices to be advocates for women. Faith Aloud provides spiritual support to persons making reproductive decisions.
7. Congress worked to ensure that women in uniform receive the same insurance coverage as the civilians they protect. This year the Senate unanimously passed a National Defense authorization bill, including the Shaheen Amendment, which would allow the military’s health insurance plan to cover the cost of abortion for servicewomen and military dependents who are survivors of rape and incest. Women’s health advocates, faith communities, and dozens of military leaders, including former Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell, urged Congress to support abortion coverage for servicewomen in these cases and put the Department of Defense rules in line with other federal policies.
Reproductive health also achieved a number of victories in the 2012 elections:
8. Attempts to pass so-called personhood laws failed in all 11 states in which these laws were proposed. Health professionals, women, religious communities, and reproductive justice advocates stood up to oppose radical laws that would define personhood from the moment of fertilization and ban abortions in all circumstances. If they had passed, these laws could have also banned in-vitro fertilization and certain methods of birth control. Efforts to enact personhood laws through state legislatures or ballot initiatives failed in Arkansas, Colorado, California, Florida, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Virginia. The legislation in Kansas didn’t even make it out of committee, and signature drives in states with ballot initiatives sometimes received fewer than half the signatures required.
9. Faith leaders publicly condemned politicians’ extremist views on rape. From Rep. Todd Akin’s (R-MO) suggestion that women could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape” to Rep. Richard Mourdock’s (R-IN) statement that children conceived in rape were what “God intended,” candidates’ extremist views on abortion gained attention during the election season. Faith leaders spoke out against these inaccurate and cruel views, calling for compassion, care, and understanding for women facing difficult decisions—especially when they are victims of sexual assault. Ultimately, voters decided that Rep. Akin, Rep. Mourdock, and other like-minded candidates who voiced their radical theology on rape were simply too extreme, and they were defeated at the polls.
10. Voters in Florida rejected an extreme ballot measure that would have restricted a woman’s access to health care. Amendment 6 would have denied insurance coverage for abortion services and removed from the state constitution a woman’s right to reproductive “privacy,” thus weakening the state court’s ability to block potential abortion restrictions such as mandatory ultrasound laws or gestational bans on abortion. This would have paved the way for a full ban on abortion if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned in the future. More than 100 clergy joined women’s health professionals and advocates in opposition to the “unnecessary and dangerous” amendment and instead called for laws that ensure access to health care and respect women’s decision making about their own health. Amendment 6 failed to receive 60 percent of the vote.
11. Women made their voices heard in the 2012 elections regarding health and reproductive issues. Women constituted a majority of voters in this year’s elections, and 55 percent of them voted for President Barack Obama, who openly campaigned as a pro-choice and health care reform leader. According to official 2012 exit polls, President Obama had a 10-point lead among women voters. Additionally, a Planned Parenthood postelection survey found strong support for the organization’s work, with 66 percent of voters disagreeing with candidate Romney’s proposal to end funding for Planned Parenthood.
12. The voices of faith-based groups were stronger than ever in speaking out for women’s reproductive health. The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice worked nationally and in several states to connect faith, family, and reproductive rights. Catholics for Choice continued to be a strong defender of women’s reproductive health and rights, setting forth pro-Catholic and pro-women’s health arguments and pushing back against conservative Catholic leaders who claimed to be speaking for the entire church. The Religious Institute worked to educate clergy and the public about faith and sexuality, offering strong religious and moral arguments in its public campaigns around family planning, gay and transgender inclusion, domestic violence, and more. And the National Council of Jewish Women was a strong defender of women’s reproductive rights and was a co-founder—with Catholics for Choice—of the Coalition for Liberty and Justice, a group that defends religious liberty and reproductive health.
The Faith and Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute at the Center for American Progress has strengthened and raised the visibility of faith voices for reproductive justice. From testifying before state legislators to writing, speaking, and collaborating with others, our leaders are providing an alternative narrative to reproductive rights that emphasizes justice, conscience, and faith.
These leaders will continue to work with other people of faith in the new year to ensure that reproductive justice victories are championed and that we continue to advocate for women’s reproductive health and justice in 2013 and beyond.
Eleni Towns is a Research Assistant with the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. For more on this initiative, please see its project page.