Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lessons from the Susan B Komen Foundation, Planned Parenthood, and recent events surrounding Contraceptive Coverage

I delivered the following sermon last Shabbat at Congregation B'nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT.  It contains two recent statements, one made by the Women's Rabbinic Network of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and one by an alliance of 28 mainstream religious organizations, regarding recent events that relate to women and access to birth control.  Some congregants requested the ability to read through the statements again, and so the entire sermon is posted here for the benefit of all who may to wish read more.

There are many different lessons that could be drawn from recent events of the past two weeks that pertain to women’s health issues. First, the decision by the Susan B Komen Foundation to de-fund breast cancer prevention services from Planned Parenthood, and then the reversal of that decision. And then, this week, the White House response to Catholic authorities protesting a health care coverage provision that required coverage to cover birth control. As you may have heard this morning, the White House did respond to these protests with a compromise that will now require the insurer -- rather than the employer -- to provide the contraceptive coverage free of charge for women employed by the entities in question. The Catholic church is still not happy, but Women’s advocacy groups are generally pleased because this will still give most women access to birth control coverage. Our own Religious Action Center also released a statement in support.

Many of us are shaking our heads, wondering why we are still fighting these battles. In the case of the Susan B Komen Foundation, a terrible manipulation appears to have taken place. We may never know how broadly intentional the attack on Planned Parenthood was by the board as a whole or whether the reputation of this organization – an organization that was presented with a prestigious award at our URJ Biennial – was truly jeopardized by one individual. There are many voices of indignation calling for mass resignations, such is the strength of the anger felt by women on what transpired. Personally, I have sympathy with the strength of these feelings but, pragmatically, I wonder whether the public ultimately wields more influence over the foundation by focusing on keeping their actions in check rather than demanding a radical turnover of the organization.

The Women’s Rabbinic Network of the CCAR released the following statement last week in response to the Foundation’s actions:
On behalf of over 600 Reform women rabbis, the Women's Rabbinic Network expresses gratitude to Planned Parenthood for the vital services it provides women, from mammograms and cervical cancer screenings, to family planning and contraceptive services, to safe abortions. For many women, Planned Parenthood is the only health care provider available to them. The Women's Rabbinic Network has always been a strong supporter of women's rights, reproductive justice, and women's health. The WRN applauds the decision of the Susan G. Komen Foundation for reversing revocation of its funding of Planned Parenthood. We are proud to be a part of the Union for Reform Judaism which presented Ambassador Nancy Brinker, founder of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, with the hightest honor bestowed by the Reform Movement, the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for Service to the World Community, in December 2011. We hope the Komen Foundation will continue to support women's health and all organizations that provide women's health services for many years to come.

As you can see, the tone is more affirming of the good behavior and affirming of our support of the good and important work that Planned Parenthood does, rather than emphasizing the bad behavior. Similarly, a statement signed by 28 major mainstream religious leaders representing a broad variety of religious organizations was released this week in support of the White House announcement on Contraceptive coverage in health care reform. This statement also emphasized and reinforced the good rather than negatively critiquing the behaviors of others.

Together, the leaders of these Christian, Jewish and Muslim national organizations affirmed:
“We stand with President Obama and Secretary Sebelius in their decision to reaffirm the importance of contraceptive services as essential preventive care for women under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and to assure access under the law to American women, regardless of religious affiliation. We respect individuals’ moral agency to make decisions about their sexuality and reproductive health without governmental interference or legal restrictions.

We do not believe that specific religious doctrine belongs in health care reform – as we value our nation’s commitment to church-state separation. We believe that women and men have the right to decide whether or not to apply the principles of their faith to family planning decisions, and to do so they must have access to services. The Administration was correct in requiring institutions that do not have purely sectarian goals to offer comprehensive preventive health care. Our leaders have the responsibility to safeguard individual religious liberty and to help improve the health of women, their children, and families. Hospitals and universities across the religious spectrum have an obligation to assure that individuals’ conscience and decisions are respected and that their students and employees have access to this basic health care service. We invite other religious leaders to speak out with us for universal coverage of contraception.”

The Catholic bishops have called the new health coverage rule "an attack on religious freedom" and argue that all employers who object to contraception -- not just faith-based organizations -- should be exempt from having to provide it to their employees.

"That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether," said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, "not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers." He added, "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate." Of course, his Taco Bell example makes the case for why the contraceptive coverage in health care reform is so important – can you imagine a situation where individual women can or cannot get coverage for contraception based on the religious beliefs of their boss at work?

Supporters of the provision say the only conscience that matters ought to be the conscience of the woman in question, whose option to have affordable contraception should not be dictated by the religious beliefs of her employer. Some of them feel that the religious exemption is already too broad, because women who work for churches in any capacity are excluded from the option of coverage.

I should point out that the statement that I just read from Religious organizations in favor of the contraceptive coverage include Catholics for Choice. Even within the Catholic church, the bishops are at odds with the majority of their followers. Recent surveys suggest that over 50% of practicing Catholics support access to contraceptive coverage. The Jewish signatories of the statement included the CCAR, Hadassah, the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, National Council for Jewish Women, the Rabbinical Assembly, Society for Humanistic Judaism, and Women of Reform Judaism.

The essence of these issues is, I think, quite rightly expressed by the cross-communal statement. Individuals should and do have the moral agency to make decisions about their reproductive health. Someone whose religious beliefs lead them to decline some of these services has the right to do so. What they don’t have the right to do is to remove access to these services from someone who may believe very differently to them. Religious doctrine does not belong in health care reform. However, I also understand (even if I disagree with their beliefs) that some people of faith feel so strongly about these issues that they are truly concerned about being coerced by government into enabling access to contraceptive care. It would appear that the White House has truly responded thoughtfully, carefully, and compassionately in trying to respond to those concerns without compromising the health and rights of individual women. It is an example to us of what is possible when we are willing to talk in tones of grey, rather than black and white; when we are able to see multiple sides of an issue and not just demonize those who don’t think like us. While there are still too many voices that like to shout in polarizing tones, I applaud those religious organizations that have come together to make a strong and clear statement on behalf of all of us who speak more softly, and I applaud the White House for the balance they have sought and found.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz