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Three Disturbing Trends About "Just Say No" to Providing Contraception

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Message Veena Trehan
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The pushback President Obama received for his decision to require free birth control for many religiously affiliated institutions (now revised to similar effect) is disturbing on three fronts. First the right's use of faith as a divider, second as it ignores longstanding and global lessons on contraceptive access, and third as it politicizes a narrow social issue.

First, the resistance represents an attempt by the right and the Catholic Church to use religion narrowly and divisively. This resistance comes as President Obama is making new strides in using faith as a broad, unifying force. The President tied major policies to Biblical teachings at his inspiring speech at last week's National Prayer Breakfast. Biblical calls to be "our brother's keeper", "love thy neighbor as thyself" and "to much whom is given, much shall be demanded" were linked to the interests of the millions of citizens who struggle daily with financial insecurity, poor health, poverty and hunger. A few policies consistent with Christian precepts: preventing discrimination by insurance companies, prosecuting predatory acts by unscrupulous lenders, providing affordable college education and higher taxes for the rich. In contrast, religious Republicans have vociferously opposed such policies, as well as the food stamp, subsidized school lunch and HeadStart programs that would serve the very children their anti-contraceptive policies would bring into the world. Clearly religious traditions of empathy, responsibility, and service are absent from their motivation.

Second, the right ignores decades of lessons we have learned as a planet. A half century ago, my grandfather helped poor Indian women plan their families and break the cycle of poverty. The largest countries, China and India, also recognized population control was key to development. They adopted policies that, if misguided in their coercive nature, were well grounded in research showing social, economic and environmental benefits. Today nonprofits emphasize empowering and educating girls -- including providing birth control -- to tap into the transformative effect these girls can have on their communities (see "The Girl Effect"). Girls who delay childbirth and plan their families tend to get more education, earn higher incomes, have better health and accrue more power in society and our family supports such international efforts today.

Such global findings are relevant here as one-third of American women have struggled to afford birth control. The one-third of US teens who get pregnant obtain less education, earning them lower salaries and making them likely to be employed. Unintended pregnancies, which are among the highest in the Western industrialized world, are also linked to depression, domestic abuse, alcoholism, and poor prenatal care according to a Institute of Medicine study. Access and affordability of contraception is an essential and important start to changing this tragic situation.

Third, the politicization and infringement on women's rights at a national level is worrisome. In the past, Republicans have pushed hard to limit abortions and cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Now they oppose a requirement already adopted by 28 out of 50 states. And the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has gone on the offensive, changing their position such that Catholics would not need to provide contraception regardless of their organization. What's next, a Catholic landlord telling his tenant to not using birth control in an apartment he owns?

This attack on women's rights is an opportunistic attempt to turn the debate to wedge social versus broad economic issues. Core Republican positions -- less regulation, less corporate taxes, no more taxes on the rich, and the end of universal health care -- cater to the richest Americans while leaving their core constituents by the wayside. Improving economy and poll numbers favoring President Obama and the first Congressional insider trading may have prompted this anti-woman agenda couched in religious objections. But with the challenges that lie ahead, we're not up for What's the Matter with Kansas America Part II. Health, poverty, climate change, and the economic challenges call for empathy, action and leadership. And that's where religion and global lessons can truly help.
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Veena Trehan is a DC-based journalist and activist. She has written for NPR, Reuters, Bloomberg News, and local papers.
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