It’s about women, even when it’s about religion

At a hearing titled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” on Thursday, not a single witness who would have answered the question, “No,” was invited to testify. Democrats on the committee requested that, per the allowance of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., that only one minority witness, one woman be heard. Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke wanted to bear witness to the financial burden imposed by a school that doesn’t cover contraception in its student health insurance plans. Stating that the hearing regarding the Obama administration’s new regulation requiring employers and insurers to provide contraception coverage to their employees was about religious freedom and not reproductive rights, Issa refused to let her speak. He added that Fluke did not have the “appropriate credentials” to testify.

I’ve been trying very hard to see this as a First Amendment issue and not a contraception issue because that, allegedly, is what has conservatives all fired up. I believe in and practice respect for all religions, so I want to avoid calling the Catholic faith — a form of Christianity that preceded and still heavily influences the Protestant version I practice — archaic or its man-made dogma silly. Despite agreeing with some commentators’ assessment that the First Amendment gives individuals the right to teach that birth control is a sin but not to withhold it from everyone who works for them, I know that faith without works is dead. You practice what you preach, or you should find something else to preach. And when you’re not allowed to put your teaching or belief in that teaching into practice, your freedom is restricted.

But now that religious institutions that aren’t churches are also exempt from the rule (and really, even when they were included), this argument is about women.

It’s about women because 99 percent of all women in the U.S. use birth control at some point, 98 percent of Catholic women use it and 58 percent of all women using it do so for purposes other than to keep those pesky sperm away. It’s about women being able to afford preventing ovarian cysts and menstrual periods that induce so much pain and sickness that women can’t go to work for several days. It’s about them getting enough iron. And yes, it’s about the only humans who are able to serve as incubators for other humans being able to opt in to that role when it’s appropriate for them.

Even when it’s about religion, it’s about women, and not just because of anatomy. The religious rules of many different faiths have long been used as excuses to exclude women from participating in society as equals, something that continues to prevent them from exercising gifts and talents God gave them and something our Constitution has determined is their right. For Issa to use a hearing “about religious freedom” to silence women should be revolting to people who hold freedom in high regard.

Issa’s paternalism is repulsive. It’s as if he said, “We don’t need to know your experience. Sure, you’ve had a vagina, ovaries and a uterus for 30 or so years, and we never have. And our male witnesses took a vow of celibacy so they will never have a partner and raise a family, but you lack expertise here. You’ve been directly affected by this panel’s religious freedom, beliefs you may not share. But we don’t need your opinion about your health. Or your doctor’s. Go away, little girl, and let the menfolk talk.”

People have the right to believe in and practice faiths that shut women out of leadership positions and the decisions that affect them, but our representatives do not have the right to silence us. Issa’s effort to muzzle Fluke shows that the “war on religion” is mythical. It would have been easy to call clergywomen or female constitutional law experts as witnesses.

Having to ask Issa permission to hear from even one woman proves that this fight is not about religious freedom. It is about reproductive rights, because reproductive rights are about women not only having a choice but having a voice. They are about women — fully and equally created and capable individuals — being in charge of their own lives and not letting things just happen to them, even when they happen naturally.

Ladies, we are not at the mercy of men any more than we’re at the mercy of a rogue menstrual cycle. We have a say in our health and in the policies and decisions that affect us. And God help the men who don’t realize that, especially those up for election.

This post was originally published on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012, in the Courier-Journal Forum section, Keith Runyon, editor. The author retains all rights.

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