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ACCESS TO CONTRACEPTION
Across the religious spectrum, the use of contraception and the practice of family planning is considered to be a moral good, a responsible act and a basic human right. The fact that 99% of women, including Catholic and evangelical women, who are of reproductive-age have used or are using contraception shows its wide acceptance. Viewed through the lens of social and reproductive justice, affordable and consistent access to contraception is essential to the health and well-being of women, men and families; it helps ensure that children are born into a family prepared to love and nurture them.
Contraception, when used consistently and correctly, prevents the contraction of sexually transmitted infections and reduces unintended pregnancies thereby minimizing the need for abortion. Further, many religions affirm that contraception and family planning help to build strong families, protect the health of women and children, reduce child and spousal abuse, prevent unwanted pregnancies and enable us to responsibly enjoy the sacred gift of sexual intimacy.
While there are now a vast array of contraceptive options available to women and couples, there are also a vast array of barriers to accessing these reproductive health technologies. Your financial means and healthcare coverage can determine whether or not you are able to reliably access and afford highly-effective, long acting contraception. Your geographic proximity to pharmacies and doctors can determine your likelihood to have consistent access to contraceptive devices, assuming your doctor or pharmacist do not impose their religious beliefs upon you by refusing to fill a prescription for contraception in the first place. The length of your prescription can determine the effectiveness of your contraception – if a prescription runs out on a weekend, for example, it could take a week or more to obtain and fill a new prescription leaving partners without protection. Intimate partner violence can determine whether a woman is able to use the contraception she desires. Lack of education stemming from societal stigma has the power to deter us from seeking and consistently using contraception correctly. These barriers, however, are not insurmountable – we have the power to make contraception affordable and accessible to all.
Reproductive justice calls us to work for the promulgation of affordable and effective contraception as a proven means of reducing a community’s STI and HIV/AIDS rate, teen and unwanted pregnancy rate and for improving and empowering a women’s sexual health. Great progress toward this end was made with the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 which enabled women to access well-woman visits, domestic violence screenings and a variety of forms of contraception without co-pay!
Just under half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended annually. Among women under 19, more than 80% of pregnancies are unintended! And of these unintended pregnancies, more than half occur for women who are using regular methods of contraception. Despite the many highly effective birth control options available to women, access can often be illusive and none is 100% perfect. These statistics remind us that mistakes happen — a condom breaks, a woman misses a pill, or she has sex when she did not plan to or even want to.
Emergency contraception – a high dose of hormones, similar to those found in birth control – is a safe and highly effective way to prevent a pregnancy following contraceptive failure. EC is most effective when used within 24 hours of sex. However, for years, religious extremism and misguided politics have obstructed–in some cases obstructed to the point of denying–access to emergency contraception pills in these urgent situations. As of June 2013, two-pill versions of EC have been made available over the counter to girls and women of any age, without prescription. This policy – a ruling from the federal courts – tremendously eases the burden on women and their partners who previously had to jump through hoops to provide proof of age or obtain prescriptions on a short deadline and subsequently get to a store during pharmacy hours, an unnecessarily difficult task for those who live long distances from providers, work long or unusual schedules or are unable to get into their doctor on short notice for a prescription.
Religious Exemptions and Refusal Clauses
Some religious traditions oppose the use of contraception and/or mistakenly believe emergency contraception is an abortifacient. Consequently, some outspoken religious leaders have sought special accommodation in public law to deny access to contraception in religiously affiliated health plans and facilities and have argued for the right of religiously devout pharmacists, nurses, doctors and others to refuse to provide health services when it would conflict with their personal beliefs. While RCRC believes that an individual’s conscience may guide his or her own behavior in medical decision making, their conscience may not control or restrict the free exercise of conscience in others. The promise of American society rests on a set of interconnected values, including respect for equality and pluralism, a clear distinction between the spheres of religion and state, and a shared commitment to provide every person with an adequate measure of public goods and services – religious exemptions and refusal clauses deny equal opportunity for patients to obtain the basic health services they desire for themselves.
*special thanks to the Guttmacher Institute for their ongoing research into reproductive health, rights, and justice, and for some of the data appears above.