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The Real Reason Evangelical Christians Are Trying to Thwart Women's Right to Birth Control

Behind the Evangelical movement's surprising turn against contraception.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Barbara J. Johnson

 

On July 19, 2011, a report released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommended that all American women be provided with free contraception. Catholic charities were immediately in an uproar, knowing that this would like result in a provision for free contraception as part of the recently-passed Affordable Care Act.

In addition to Catholic institutions, evangelical organizations were also sounding the alarm bells. “Yet another untruth about Obamacare has been uncovered,” said Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, on July 20. “HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has recommended mandatory coverage for ‘emergency contraception,’ which is a euphemism for the morning-after pill, which often kills a newly conceived child by not allowing the embryo to implant on the wall of the mother’s womb.”

Land’s strong words mark the first major evangelical objection to the contraception mandate. By the Spring of 2012, evangelicals were the only major religious group where a majority opposed the mandate, according to a Public Religion Research Institute Poll. But the evangelical anti-contraception-mandate movement didn’t gain widespread attention until Hobby Lobby filed a lawsuit against Sebelius, announced in September 2012. Hobby Lobby founder David Green argued that his company was founded on pro-life Christian principles, and thus should be exempt from the mandate. “Being Christians, we don't pay for drugs that might cause abortions. Which means that we don't cover emergency contraception, the morning-after pill or the week-after pill. We believe doing so might end a life after the moment of conception, something that is contrary to our most important beliefs.”

The Hobby Lobby lawsuit encouraged other evangelicals to join the battle against the mandate. Lawsuits opposing the mandate, which had previously been filed mainly by Catholic groups, were now being filed by evangelical businesses and universities. Evangelical publishing giant Tyndale House sued Sebelius, followed by three Baptist universities, The American Family Association, and Guidestone Financial Resources (which provides health insurance to Southern Baptist Convention employees.)

With the Hobby Lobby’s case to be decided by the Supreme Court in June, many Americans are still confused about the evangelical role in this fight. Unlike Catholics, evangelicals have not historically been known for their opposition to birth control, and yet, most journalists seem to have taken conservative evangelicals at their word, assuming that if evangelicals say they have always been opposed to birth control, it must be true.

The reality is much more complicated. Technically, evangelicals have been opposed to certain forms of birth control ever since they came to believe life begins at conception. Before the mid- to late-1970s, evangelicals actually had a generally pro-choice attitude, according to Jonathan Dudley, author of “Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics.” Dudley pointed to a 1968 document produced at an evangelical conference co-sponsored by Christianity Today and the Christian Medical and Dental Association that said, “Whether the performance of an induced abortion is sinful we are not agreed, but about the necessity of it and permissibility for it under certain circumstances we are in accord. … When principles conflict, the preservation of fetal life ... may have to be abandoned to maintain full and secure family life."

When evangelicals finally got on the pro-life bandwagon on the mid to late 1980s, they adopted much of the pre-existing pro-life ideology, which had been created by Catholic pro-lifers. According to Dudley, “When evangelicals joined the movement full-force in the late 1970s, Catholics had already established what it meant to be "pro-life" in the political world. And being "pro-life" meant believing life begins at conception.”