Reproductive Rights: The Right to Choose

Reproductive rights in Alabama is heating up this year with several bills being presented before the legislature in Montgomery.  Whose right is it to determine what happens in one’s body?

HB108: The Religious Liberty Act of 2013,  dubbed the Hobby Lobby bill, would allow businesses to deny birth control and other contraceptives and abortifacient drugs, devices and or methods from the medical benefits  offered to employees under the guise that it violates the employer’s religious freedom.

Not every woman who is on contraceptives is taking them to prevent pregnancy.  Some women are on contraceptives to treat medical issues. To think that contraceptives only purpose is to allow women to have sex without pregnancy is ignorant and reveals a lack of moral maturity. We as a nation,  as sophisticated as we are in many arenas, when it comes to morality especially when it pertains to sexuality are very sophomoric about it.  We still believe that it is alright for boys to sow their oats but girls must remain pure and innocent.  This double standard implies that if females  take contraceptives then they must be as Rush Limbaugh so infamously announced: sluts.  The males? — well they simply cannot control themselves.

Using the religious liberty angle is equally immature.  We do not live in a religiously homogenous society and have not ever since the puritans divided into Trinitarians and Unitarians–not to mention the exile of the  Baptists to what was to become Rhode Island.  To act as if we live in a homogenous society results in bills that seek to impose one’s religious views over another.  This is not what religious freedom means. Religious freedom means that I have the right to worship and practice my faith according to my conscience in equal measure to your having the right to worship and practice your faith according to your conscience. It means that together we seek to lift up values that are held in common and we legislate to protect those common values. It does not mean that one religious view is superior or should have precedent over any other religious view.  This is what using the religious liberty angle attempts in this legislation.  It is stating the religious beliefs of the employer are superior and carry more validity to those religious beliefs or non-belief of the employee.

So for example: We have a common value in road safety.  So while it could be argued that texting while driving is an interference to performing one’s business (personal or professional) obligations , it is also an endangerment to the other drivers on the road and would no longer uphold the value of  road safety.  Because we as a society value road safety as a higher priority than the instant need to text someone, we in Alabama have banned texting while driving. Someone, presumably, could argue that texting while driving is a form of prayer in the same vein that rattlesnake handling is a form of prayer for some religious sects. Texting while driving is a matter of proving one’s faith so to speak. Do we then pass a religious liberty act protecting drivers who as an act of faith text and drive?  Of course not, it’s absurd but that is the same rationale behind HB 108. It is absurd to pass legislation on religious grounds that alleges that one’s religious morals are superior to another person’s–disregarding the potential harm such a stance may have the employee’s health and well-being.

I have already written on HB57 “Women’s Health and Safety Act.” You may read it here.  But let me add this act also is based on a very specific religious point of view that  pretends to be the singular view.  It too is filled with subjective language that assumes everyone agrees with this singular viewpoint. The best example in the bill is where abortions are equated to the “taking of a human life” –implying murder.   There is no factual evidence presented to back up the claims made in this proposed legislation. Because it assumes this singular view of religious thought as the only view that matters, it attacks a value that is as American as baseball and apple pie.

America has a long history of honoring the value of individual rights and in this context over one’s physical body.  We have as a nation lauded the individual spirit, the do or die attitude of the American.  It had however, a masculine aroma surrounding it excluding women.  When our nation was founded the phrase  “all men created equal” referred only to white males who were landowners.  But that sentiment has expanded and developed in America to hopefully encompass everyone (soon it will even include gender and sexual diversities) but to be still debating it in regards to women in 2013 is a painful and embarrassing shame on America. We still have not passed basic individual rights like equal pay for equal work.

The few gains in individual rights regarding women’s health issues have been undermined in recent years. The right for a woman to determine when she wants to be pregnant is fraught with stigma and shame.  And the woman, if she is single, it does not matter which decision she chooses, she is wrong and shameful.  It is wrong for her to keep the child and raise it as a single parent and it is wrong for her to abort the pregnancy.  I have known women who have chosen one or the other and regardless of their choice, their lives were made difficult by others and by legislation enacted for choosing incorrectly.

I long for the day when a woman’s choice is honored and respected, regardless if it is to keep the pregnancy (even in the best of circumstances that decision is life altering) or if the decision is to abort.  Their decision needs to be honored, respected, and supported.  This save the fetus but damn the child that is born is the most morally depraved stance I have ever witnessed.

One of the speakers at the HB57 hearing said it best, when she said there are ways of reducing abortions.  We can educate people in advance of pregnancy through comprehensive sexual education (a proven way to reduce teenage pregnancy by the way). We can provide services that will support the choice to carry out the pregnancy with child support, aid the single mother to finish her education so she can afford a position that will not only feed and clothe the child but also pay for childcare.  But the bottom line is we have got to stop stigmatizing women who choose differently than we would have.

Stigmatizing others  is not congruent with any of our religious texts–instead we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. This teaching is in the Christian, Hebrew, and Islamic texts.  It is found in the Mormon, Buddhist, and Tao teachings as well.  And it is congruent with the  principles of my Unitarian Universalist Faith.

We must respect and trust the individual to make the choices that are right for her.  That is the American value I was taught by my Republican parents and grandparents.  We value  individual freedoms and we have fought wars to prevent governments from curtailing those individual freedoms on their citizens.  And I can not think of any individual freedom that is more important than the ability to choose as best as we are able to discern the life path of our bodies.

Imposing our religious beliefs on a woman who is struggling with an unwanted pregnancy is spiritual violence.  It causes more irreparable and long term trauma than any other kind of violence committed against a person.  Yes, by all means offer counseling, offer education, offer alternative options but do not tell her her decision is wrong when she makes it.

Personal story:  I was the co-founder and executive director  of an  AIDS ministry for many years.  One of our clients, who discovered her HIV status when she was pregnant with her first child and born HIV positive, became pregnant several years later.  By this time our treatment of pregnant women with HIV had improved considerably but this woman’s health was extremely fragile.  She had just found a combination of drugs that reduced her viral load.  She wanted to have this child.  But the risks to her health were great. She  had to come off all  medications and go on AZT which would not help her own immune system and given the state of her health might not prevent perinatal transmission of the virus.  Her case management agency was advising her to abort.  My agency took the view that as long as she had all of the information needed to make a decision, it was her right to choose and then our responsibility to stand by that decision and support her as best we could. There were many arguments between the two agencies regarding our refusing to support her getting an abortion.  There were way too many things that could happen. Emphasis on could happen.  She had the information including the risk that she could die in the process.  She chose to keep the pregnancy. It was a difficult pregnancy, fraught with all sorts of complications that late stage HIV disease could have on a woman.  The baby was born healthy against all odds and her health with medications returned.  We stood by her decision to see this pregnancy through. It could have ended tragically and her first child could have become an orphan as a toddler.  But her ability to set the course for her life was utmost more important than anyone’s  religious convictions.

I believe in a woman’s right to make an informed choice regarding abortion.  The stigma surrounding her choice in this nation is harmful and needs to end.  I stand in opposition to HB108 and HB57 because they curtail a woman’s ability to choose what she feels is best for her.  And these laws further add shame to her for choosing differently.

I will write on the upcoming SB 205 Personhood Bill in a separate post.

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