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.