It is 2016, and it is the year of the woman. A woman is running for president, and we are becoming astrophysicists and lawyers, teachers and mothers; we are fighting for our rights on the national scale.
I am a 22-year-old woman who will attend Georgetown University Law Center in the fall. The world is open to me in ways it was not for my mother or my grandmother. I am both grateful for the advancements in women’s rights that have been made, and dedicated to continuing that necessary work.
However, I reject the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS’s) notion that the whole of women’s rights can be boiled down to birth control and who provides it. It is not only wrong but harmful to young women to frame the issue of women’s equality as merely an issue of preventative health care. Furthermore, I find it offensive that a group of women dedicated to serving their community could somehow be violating their own rights as women and other women’s rights by exercising a personal religious belief.
A False ‘Accommodation’ for Women’s Needs
The mission, values, and goals of the Roman Catholic Church and Little Sisters of the Poor are largely the same because the Little Sisters of the Poor is a 177-year-old organization of Catholic women dedicated to serving the elderly. Nevertheless, HHS’s contraception mandate deems the Little Sisters of the Poor a religious nonprofit organization eligible for what the Obama administration called an “accommodation” but was neither the exception granted to the Roman Catholic Church nor a change to the mandate itself.
While HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell and HHS consider the Little Sisters’ objection to the accommodation “unusual,” because it “attacks the Government’s attempt to accommodate religious exercise,” I believe that the government’s response is unusual and that their “attempt to accommodate religious exercise” does not accommodate women or religious dissenters at all.
This accommodation “exempts religious objectors from the generally applicable requirement to provide contraceptive coverage, while also seeking to ensure that third parties separately provide the affected women with the coverage to which those women are legally entitled.” This accommodation merely frees the Little Sisters from dispensing contraceptives themselves, but still seeks to provide their employees and members with contraception through a third party.
Religiosity Is Part of Our Identity, Just Like Being a Woman
Burwell and her cohort seem not to understand that these beliefs are as much a part of the Little Sisters’ womanhood as their right to birth control. Harvard’s Michael J. Sandel describes the weight of religious belief as the “loyalties and responsibilities whose moral force consists partly in the fact that living by them is inseparable from understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are.” The Little Sisters’ religious identity cannot be separated from their identity as women, nor can their religious freedom be separated from their rights as women. My identity as a woman is indivisible from my identity as a Christian and as a law student and as a daughter.
I am not a Roman Catholic, and I do not believe that birth control is abortion. In fact, I pick up my birth control (for hormonal regulation) at the Scott and White pharmacy on Valley Mills in Waco, Texas every three months. However, I also do not expect the Christian college where I am a student worker to provide me with preventative birth control, and I would not expect Little Sisters of the Poor to violate their beliefs in order to provide me with health care I can receive elsewhere.
Merriam-Webster defines “pluralism” as “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.” Burwell argues that because we live in a pluralistic society, this “sort of substitution of obligations is an appropriate means of accommodating religious objectors while also protecting other important interests, such as women’s interest in full and equal health coverage.”
Full and equal health coverage is a significant public interest for women, but no less significant than women’s rights to holding and exercising their religious beliefs. As a woman, I am characterized by more than my ovaries. I am a person of convictions and beliefs and ideas, not merely bones and skin and sex organs. By making this issue a women’s rights issue at the exclusion of my religious commitment and belief is not only patronizing, but missing the point of women’s equality entirely.