Separating a black woman’s reproductive life from her spiritual life isn’t always easy. Religiosity informs much of our lives—including our reproductive lives. Whether we look to our creator for guidance in pregnancy matters or to trusted faith leaders for advice on how to raise our children, it is a vital component prevalent in the larger black experience and also a very intimate one.
And as a follower of Jesus, I believe that everyone’s spiritual or religious journey is deeply personal. Because each person’s experience of God and faith is unique, no one should impose his or her beliefs on your journey.
Yet that is exactly what is happening in the Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius cases being argued this week before the Supreme Court.
Hobby Lobby CEO David Green and Norman Hahn of Conestoga contend that their religious liberty is infringed by the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employer health plans include coverage for contraceptive care—specifically, emergency contraceptives like Plan B in the case of Green, and IUDs in the case of Hahn—but that’s not so. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga are for-profit corporations, not religiously affiliated not-for-profits. Green and Hahn may have personal objections to certain forms of contraception—which is their right—but corporate bosses imposing their personal beliefs on employees is an abuse of power, not religious liberty.
The Supreme Court has not yet held that corporations have religious beliefs, and the decision the justices will eventually hand down won’t merely determine whether some types of birth control are OK and others not. It has the potential to be a decision of Citizens United magnitude, extending to corporations what has to this point been the deeply personal province of personal belief.
I find it untenable that we might head down the road to denying care—in the name of religion—when my faith teaches me that all people should have access to resources that they need to make decisions about the here and now—particularly when it comes to responsible family planning.
When employers claim religious liberty as a reason not to provide adequate health coverage to female employees, women—especially black women—pay the price. We know that women who have access to birth control get more education, earn better livings, are healthier and have more stable relationships than women who do not, but today in America, women don’t have equal access to those benefits.
Those benefits have measurable positive—and potentially life-changing—outcomes.
Babies born to mothers who can space their pregnancies are more likely to be healthy at birth and less likely to suffer low birth weight and developmental disabilities. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 83 percent of black women who are at risk of unintended pregnancy currently use a contraceptive method. Many of them get it through their employer-based health insurance—but what happens when a boss decides he doesn’t want to make birth control available through the company’s plan? The Pill isn’t the focus of the cases currently before the court, but make no mistake—there are companies with more conservative bosses who would use any decision in their favor to deny a wide range of health care options to which they have a personal objection.
And let’s not forget that oral contraceptives are used for more than family planning. Of the 1.5 million women using oral contraceptives, 14 percent rely on this method exclusively for noncontraceptive purposes. It’s especially true for black women suffering from uterine fibroids—which we are three times more likely to have than our white counterparts.
As a person of faith, I have a religious tradition that tells me I have a right to make personal decisions based on my individual values. And as a young black woman, I’m all too familiar with our society’s tendency to deprive people like me of equal access to resources. Religious values and reproductive values can and do coexist, though—not only for me but also for millions of people like me.
As we watch the Hobby Lobby case unfold, people of faith should remember that imposing your religious beliefs on someone else is not religious liberty. It is religious oppression. We should not stand by while faith is used as a tool of oppression to deny women the right to take care of their own bodies and to exercise their own religious consciences. Our right to speak up for our sisters and ourselves is real religious liberty.
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