Access Denied: The Religious Right Opens Up A New Front On Its War Against Birth Control
Rob Boston printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Mon Jul 21, 2014 at 09:57:41 AM EST

Some commentators continue to insist that the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores was no big deal. It's a narrow ruling, they insist, and there are other ways to ensure that women can get access to birth control.

Birth control is a vital component of women's health, and I find it disturbing that so many people are blithely dismissing a high court ruling that has the potential to curtail access to millions of women. Yes, generic birth control pills are cheap, but not all women can use generics. In fact, not all women can or want to use birth control pills. Other options, such as IUDs, sterilizing operations and cervical caps, tend to be more expensive.

More to the point, the legal argument buttressing this supposedly "narrow" ruling is already spurring Religious Right groups to ramp up their increasingly aggressive war against access to birth control.

Consider this case from Florida: A woman named Sara Hellwege is in federal court suing Tampa Family Health Centers (TFHC) after the facility refused to hire her as a nurse midwife. Officials at TFHC had at first expressed some interest in bringing Hellwege on staff but changed their minds after learning that she would refuse to provide any form of hormonal contraceptives to clients.

Hormonal contraceptives include some of the most common types - birth control pills, patches, implants and vaginal rings. TFHC serves a primarily low-income population; many of the women who patronize the clinic come there for birth control. And if Hellwege had been on duty, they would not have been able to get most forms of it.

In short, Hellwege admitted upfront that she was not willing to do a good percentage of this job. The clinic, quite naturally, declined to hire her because she doesn't actually want to perform many of the tasks they need done. According to Hellwege and her attorneys at the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), she is a victim of religious discrimination!

The ADF is playing hardball. Because TFHC serves a low-income population, it is supported in part by federal funding. Hellwege and the ADF are seeking $400,000 in damages for her. They also want to clinic to be fined, and they want it to lose all of its public funding. This would essentially cripple the facility and most likely end in its being shuttered - which is probably what Hellwege and the ADF are really after here.

As writer Robin Marty noted, this is part of a coordinated campaign of harassment against women's health clinics that serve a vulnerable part of our population.

"By sending in applicants that have no intention of actually distributing the most effective forms of birth control (and to be clear, a clinic accepting Title X funds cannot offer abortion), contraception opponents then cut off access for the most impoverished populations," Marty wrote. "Due to lack of income, it would be a massive hardship to get to a different clinic in order to fill a prescription, making it that much more difficult for a person on a low income to prevent pregnancy."

So what's this really all about? Having observed Religious Right groups for a number of years, I know that they place a high premium on a theology anchored in judgment, punishment and retribution. And nowhere does this come to bear more pointedly when we discuss issues of human sexuality.

How dare adults express their sexuality? How dare they engage in "consequence-free" sexual acts? How dare they enjoy it? How dare women especially do these things?

All of the preaching in the world from latter-day Puritans hasn't stopped consenting adults from making their own decisions about sex - when to do it, how to do it and who to do it with. So they must be punished. And if it takes a bogus religious freedom argument to do that, then so be it.

We don't know how the Florida case will turn out. I do know that there was a time - not long ago - when it would have been laughed out of court. Thanks to the Supreme Court's reckless disregard for separation of church and state, it may very well prevail.

Hellwege's attorneys filed this challenge before the Hobby Lobby ruling came down. But we would be nave to think that the rationale behind that decision, which has existed as a Religious Right legal theory for years, won't empower fundamentalist zealots to launch increasingly brazen attacks on access to birth control.

The upside-down theory of "religious freedom" championed by the high court has given Religious Right busybodies a powerful new legal weapon to harass others and meddle in our intimate and personal affairs.

You'd better believe they're going to use it.

P.S. Wonkette has run a rather spirited account about this case, which quotes AU Senior Litigation Counsel Gregory M. Lipper. Be warned - it contains a sarcasm overload.  



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