New Evangelical Christian group advocates for family planning

It’s not everyday that I hear evangelical Christians loudly proclaim their support for contraception during a Washington D.C. press conference, and urge other evangelicals to follow their lead. But that’s exactly what happened Oct. 15 at the National Press Club when The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good released its new report, “A Call to Christian Common Ground on Family Planning, and Maternal, and Children’s Health.”

Based in Tennessee, the New Evangelical Partnership (NEP) is an organization that espouses a Christian advocacy and public engagement that cares for the good of humanity by standing for human rights, Muslim-Christian dialogue and nuclear disarmament, among other issues. The organization views itself as an alternative to the culture-war evangelicalism that damaged the American church’s evangelism. Partnering with public health experts, the NEP wrote the new report to create discussion among evangelicals at home and abroad on the importance and significance of family planning. It lays out the argument that contraceptive use is linked to, and necessary for healthy families, maternal and child health and abortion reduction. For feminists and women’s rights advocates outside of the evangelical community, this is a well-known position. Promoting contraceptive use is also a good common ground where religious communities, feminists and women’s rights advocates can meet.

Dig deeper into the report’s framework, and there are some major stumbling blocks to creating more common ground, particularly in determining who should use contraceptives, the definition of family and the marginalization of abortion. It’s expected that as evangelical Christians, the NEP’s report acknowledges but doesn’t condone pre-marital sex, narrowly defines marriage between men and women and understands sex as “intrinsically procreative.” The report doesn’t include abortion in its definition of family planning. (In response to an audience member’s question on the topic during the press conference, a doctor on the panel unequivocally stated that contraception is not abortion. Thank you, doctor, for publicly setting the record straight!) As another selling point for wary evangelicals, the NEP links the use of contraceptives to preventing and decreasing abortion.

It’s clear that the NEP’s report defines and condones women’s contraceptive use within the confines of the heterosexual and married family. The language of “family planning” instead of “contraceptives” or “birth control” underlines its family-centric, procreative focus. I could go on about why limiting contraceptive support within heteronormativity and marriage is not good policy and healthcare. What’s troubling me more about this report is the marginalization and complete erasure of abortion as a necessary and legitimate part of women’s reproductive health care and maternal health. It’s understandable and acceptable that abortion for some religious people goes against their faith. You have your beliefs, I have mine. However, whether you condone it or not, abortion, like pre-marital sex, exists and is connected to the complicated reality of women’s lives within their families, relationships and communities. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 6 out of 10 women seeking abortions in the U.S. already have a child. They’re mothers and many describe themselves as religiously affiliated. Women have abortions for many different reasons, from finishing school to being unable to financially support another child, to rape, incest and to save her own life. Not discussing abortion because of the fear of further alienating evangelicals from supporting contraceptive use further stigmatizes abortion and hurts women’s access to a safe, legal and necessary medical procedure. Supporting women’s right to only prevent pregnancy (not during) is not giving women full control of their bodies and denies them autonomy as persons. It’s simply irresponsible and callous to ignore abortion when tens of thousands of women around the world die from unsafe, illegal abortions. Here in the U.S., women are finding that their right to a safe, legal abortion doesn’t mean much if they can’t access it because the closest clinic shut down, the cost is too high, the state’s mandatory waiting periods are too long or some GOP lawmaker wants to legislate transvaginal ultrasounds.

Considering the consistent, virulent attacks on birth control in the past year –  from Rush Limbaugh’s slut-shaming of Sandra Fluke to Catholic bishops opposition to healthcare plans covering contraceptives – it’s refreshing to see a religious community voice full-throated support for birth control. It reaffirms that some religious communities in the U.S. are willing to stand up for women’s rights. As feminists and women’s rights advocates, we should support them for taking a controversial stand in their communities. But it’s not enough. Advocating for contraceptive use is a basic, elementary position. Progressive-minded evangelicals must continue to push the envelope on women’s reproductive health, including abortion, no matter how difficult and painful it is within the evangelical community. Women’s lives depend on it. What’s also desperately needed and not discussed is evangelical support for comprehensive, scientific sex education in schools. Without education, women and men will not know how to use contraceptives, plan the size of their families and reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions. Talking about one part of the picture (contraceptives) is not enough. It’s just a start in the right direction toward the common good of all women and men.

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The personal is political. Yes, that includes you, Chick-Fil-A consumer.

I’ve been silently watching and reading as the emotional, heated debate over Chick-Fil-A unfolded this past week on my Facebook newsfeed, TV and Twitter. Until now, I haven’t felt compelled to write anything on this issue because the news that Chick-Fil-A donates some of its corporate earnings to anti-gay organizations is old news. And I’m confused why Chick-Fil-A supporters think this is a freedom of religion issue. No one’s telling Chick-Fil-A to close on Sundays or stop being Christian.

The issue is that customers’ money is funding the harmful and hateful agenda of organizations that are actively denying rights to Americans. Chick-Fil-A is mixing business and politics in the name of Christianity and using the cry of freedom of religion as a smokescreen to get away with questionable corporate donations. Christian ethics and beliefs demand that you love your neighbor as yourself. It doesn’t instruct us to hurt each other and deny each other full equality as men and women. What kind of Christians are the people who run Chick-Fil-A?

What motivated me to finally write about Chick-Fil-A is this opinion piece in The Atlantic by Jonathan Merritt, in which he defends the fast food chain and questions the effectiveness of boycotts in the culture wars. Sure, Chick-Fil-A donates to more worthy causes like education and boycotts of consumer products are sometimes questionable in their effectiveness, but I stopped following Merritt’s argument when he wrote this:

But my bigger question is this: In a nation that’s as divided as ours is, do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed? And is this really the kind of culture we want to create? Culture war boycotts cut both ways and are much more likely to meet with success when prosecuted by large groups of people, such as Christian activists, who are more numerous than gays and lesbians and their more activist supporters.

(bold emphasis is mine)

What! Stop the chicken frying for a second and let’s think about this rationally. Merritt’s question – “do we really want our commercial lives and our political lives to be so wholly intermeshed?” – has already happened. Yes, Mr. Merritt, the personal is (still) political. Always was, and always will be. Ask any feminist. The daily decisions I make on where and what I should spend my money on is personal and has political consequences, no matter what political party I belong to. If, as a country, we thought more about how the mundane details and decisions of our personal lives connected to and affected larger politics, we’d fully realize our power as voters and citizens and demand real change. Instead, we’re told to shut up, eat the damn sandwich and accused of attacking religious freedom.

Merritt’s second claim in the paragraph is that Christian activists outnumber gays, lesbians and whoever else happens to support them (???). Following this logic, being a Christian activist and gay/lesbian are mutually exclusive. Sorry, you can’t be Christian and gay/lesbian. Oh, and if you’re wondering, there are no Christians included in the “more activist supporters” category for gays and lesbians. If Merritt believes that culture wars like Chick-Fil-A are so damaging and ineffective to our society and country, why is he pitting one group (Christian activists) against another group (gays and lesbians) and betting that the Christians will win in culture war boycotts?

I agree with Merritt that we need more healthy, level-headed disagreements and Facebook, 24-hour news channels/cycles are not the forums to hold them.

Here’s a suggestion: acknowledge and fully realize that the personal is political. Go read Wayne Self’s outstanding piece, “The Chick Fellatio: Stuck in the Craw” for a rebuttal to Merritt and all other Chick-Fil-A supporters. Then ask yourself if you’re still hungry for Chick-Fil-A.

“Trust Women”

“There are a lot of people in the United States that don’t like what we do…Our response was and continues to be, ‘Hell no, we won’t go.” -Dr. George Tiller, speaking to Feminist Majority Foundation in 2008.

More news + blogs on the 3rd anniversary of the murder of Dr. Tiller:

  • How can the pro-choice and reproductive justice movements better support the people who have later abortions and providers who perform them? (a call for collective blog remembrance by Abortion Gang)

Writer’s guide to Reproductive Justice

I had the amazing experience yesterday of attending NYC Reproductive Justice Coalition’s first Reproductive Justice Media conference in Manhattan. Listening and learning from the organizing, research and writing of reproductive justice activists and writers like Pamela Merritt, Aimee Thorne-Thomsen, Jamia Wilson and Belle Taylor McGee, was a rare opportunity for me to delve more deeply into a movement that is gradually reshaping my own thinking of women’s health. It’s also incredibly inspiring and enriching to be in a room full of badass, smart women who are making things happen. Being able to meet them outside of Twitter was even better.

NYC Reproductive Justice Coalition, an outgrowth of SisterSong NYC, organized the conference in collaboration with Women’s eNews in order to reframe the discussion of what reproductive justice means, how to create messages and communicate them to the media and public. In this spirit, the coalition created a Tumblr stylesheet for writers, activists and media folks to use when discussing reproductive justice. One entry, “Reproductive Justice, Reproductive Rights (difference),” states:

Reproductive justice is the theory, practice, and movement to ensure that people are supported in their decisions to create families—or not—in the most optimal situations possible.

Reproductive rights concentrate on fighting to keep abortion a safe, legal, and accessible reproductive choice with some discussions on birth control and and family creation. It also centers the sexual and reproductive capabilities of cisgender women to the exclusion/erasure of trans people and non-binary/genderqueer people because it defines the ability to give birth as a hallmark of “womanhood.”

Use it and share it! NYC Reproductive Justice Coalition is also live tweeting the entire conference (@NYC4RJ) (#RJmedia2012).

Today on Capitol Hill: Trading women’s autonomy for D.C.’s

The House subcommittee on the Constitution is holding a hearing today without the presence of the city’s elected Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, on a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy in the District of Columbia. Oh, you know, just another day on Capitol Hill!

Based on similar bills modeled and promoted by the National Right to Life Committee, the bill introduced earlier this year by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) is a standalone bill in legislative talks that would grant D.C. autonomy over its budget. The bill – “District of Columbia Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” – is based upon the disputed claim that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks gestation or older. Although the AP reports the bill has no chance becoming law this year, six states have passed similar legislation.

In case you’re confused about what this debate is really about – fetal pain? D.C. budget autonomy? abortion? – let me save you the mental frustration. Republicans are trading D.C. women’s autonomy over their bodies and healthcare decisions for the city’s budget autonomy. Their asking price is a restriction on D.C. women’s healthcare and constitutional right to abortion. I’m sick and tired of the continual attacks on our healthcare and reproductive rights. And I’m sick of the undemocratic, oppressive tactic of baiting one group of Americans’ rights against another. Enough! On the Rachel Maddow Show last night, Holmes Norton forcefully called the bill out as a bullying tactic. Well done, Rep. Holmes Norton.

Focus on the Family thinks Tim Tebow deserves more respect than you.

The Golden Rule doesn’t apply to the good Christian folks at Focus on the Family. Last week, The Washington Post ran an op-ed piece, “The Temptation of Tim Tebow,” by Esther Fleece, assistant to the president for millennial relations at Focus on the Family.

In the piece, Fleece chastised the Web site AshleyMadison.com for offering a $1 million bounty to anyone who offers proof of having sex with Tim Tebow, the New York Jets quarterback who is also known for being a 24 year-old Christian virgin, and the site’s CEO Noah Biderman for defending it. While I agree with Fleece that the actions of this Web site are crass and silly, she finally gets to the real point of her column: “…namely, that abstinence before marriage is an impossibility and/or a silly relic from the past.” After trotting out statistics to support her point that abstinence before marriage is more common than you think, she gets to her final point:

Here’s the bottom line: Noah Biderman is sadly representative of those who deeply underestimate the power of sex. It was not designed by God as a casual act to be shared indiscriminately with anyone and everyone. It was devised by our creator as the healthy byproduct of a healthy marriage, not the objective of a relationship…

Fleece then goes on to write that she agrees with people when they tell her that she has “missed out” on having premarital sex:

I have missed out on heartbreak, insecurities relating to my body, sharing the most precious part of my heart with someone other than my husband, STDs, unplanned pregnancy, etc. Not all my friends then, or now, understood or understand my commitment to purity. The difference between AshleyMadison.com and my friends, though, is that even though they don’t share my convictions, they respect me for the way I am living them out.

Uhhh, what? Just because a man or woman chooses to remain sexually abstinent before marriage, doesn’t mean he/she misses out on heartbreak, bodily insecurities and sharing his/her heart with someone else. All of these things can happen if you are a virgin or not. After all, you can love someone deeply and have your heart broken even if you haven’t had sex with him/her. We like to pretend that the bonds of matrimony automatically protect you from having your heart broken, STIs and unplanned pregnancy and it doesn’t. Some spouses cheat and use birth control inconsistently or not at all. And as a woman in this culture and society that constantly bombards me and you with gendered beauty norms, how has Ms. Fleece NOT had bodily insecurities?! It’s impossible. It’s clear she’s talking about heterosexual, vaginal intercourse as the only sex that’s worth discussing. But what about oral sex? Can you still be a virgin and have oral sex? If you answer yes, then I’m sorry – you can still be exposed to STIs.

Tim Tebow deserves that same respect. He not only believes, but boldly lives by the belief, that sex outside the context of marriage forms permanent bonds and memories from temporary relationships, and is therefore neither long-lasting or truly satisfying to the soul.

Fleece’s last claim – that Tim Tebow deserves respect for his personal decision to remain a virgin until marriage – is correct. He does. But her unwillingness to give the same respect to those who don’t fit her definition of “good sex,” (even if it’s a sleazy Web site and CEO) and who have sex in many social contexts outside the confines of heterosexual marriage, is hypocrisy. Tim Tebow and others like him have one view of sex and it doesn’t make it any better than other views of what sex is and isn’t. Fleece’s view is one that I happen to disagree with and don’t live by, but that’s what makes the world go around.

If Esther Fleece doesn’t like people judging her and not respecting her for her personal, sexual decisions that only concern her, then why is she doing the same thing to those of us who don’t think sex outside of marriage is wrong and can be long-lasting and satisfying to the soul? Spare me the morality lesson.

Note to U.S. Catholic Bishops: My body is not your battleground for ‘religious liberty.’

We no longer need to worry about U.S. Catholic bishops holding our right to affordable, no-cost contraceptives hostage in the name of “religious liberty,” thanks to the Obama administration’s new decision today to shift the cost of providing women with contraceptives to the insurance companies. Read RH Reality Check’s synopsis of today’s news.

This appears to be a win-win for both sides, and I couldn’t be happier. It’s gratifying to see the Obama administration remain firm in protecting and standing by women’s health for once. It preserves women’s expanded access to health care and allows religiously affiliated institutions to uphold and not compromise their antiquated, anti-woman beliefs.

What has concerned me about this intense debate in the past week is the argument that requiring Catholic universities and other institutions to cover their female employee’s birth control was an infringement on religious liberty and freedom. Last time I checked, religious liberty or freedom as enshrined in our Constitution, allows us to freely practice and follow the faith we choose without discrimination and government interference. Every faith has its core beliefs and teachings that make it undeniably Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. But it’s man-made rules, not holy, divine decrees, commandments and scriptures that control and dictate women’s reproductive choices.

I refuse to believe anything else when I see a small, elite group of celibate (I assume) Catholic bishops hold so fiercely to “church teachings” and ignore the reality that 98 percent of Catholics have widely used contraception (including myself, if you count lapsed Catholics). And never mind that Catholic hospitals and universities have had to provide contraceptive coverage for their Catholic and non-Catholic employees in 28 states. Oh, and having health plans that exclude services that only women use is discriminatory.

Anyway, I digress. For some religious folk, contraceptives will always be morally unacceptable. But what about the rest of us women who are religious, secular or atheist and don’t believe that controlling your fertility is a morally abominable act punishable by God? Is it not hypocritical that the small, mostly male minority of Catholic bishops who cry “religious liberty” are infringing on the rest of the faithful’s religious freedom to think otherwise by preventing them from getting the health care they need? Including the 98 percent of Catholic men and women who obviously don’t follow their church leaders’ teachings?

We live in a complex, multi-faith country where women have diverse, personal beliefs and faith about how best to make their reproductive decisions and futures. (And it’s worth pointing out that not all women who take oral contraceptives are taking it to prevent pregnancy. Women take birth control pills for a variety of hormonal and medical reasons.) If we’re going to argue and defend religious liberty and freedom, then a small, extreme group of right-wing Catholic bishops imposing their view of contraception and women’s bodies on the rest of us – 98% to be exact – is the opposite of religious freedom. It’s religious tyranny. My body is not your battleground for “religious liberty.”