Hillary Clinton combined two elements in her keynote address to the Women in the World conference in New York City last Thursday that received a lot of negative attention from the pro-life right but that laid the groundwork for a winning position that will appeal to the vast majority of Americans: support for contraception regardless of belief.
Clinton staked out the position that women should receive reproductive health care, saying, “Far too many women are denied access to reproductive health care and safe childbirth.” And that reproductive health care is linked to the advance of women’s rights and society as a whole: “America moves ahead when all women are guaranteed the right to make their own health care choices, not when those choices are taken away by an employer like Hobby Lobby.” This reference to Hobby Lobby (and the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby) is in fact a reference to the right’s push against contraception (not just abortion). She called on every sector to support women’s rights: “It’s up to all of us women, men, business leaders, policy makers, people of faith and community leaders to be a part of the progress we want to see.”
She was not content, however, to simply call on like-minded believers to join the fight for women: “Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will and deep-seated cultural code[s], religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.” She thus staked out the position that beliefs that violate women’s rights should not be the law and, in fact, should be challenged. It is a point she made in Geneva four years ago:
[Another] issue arises when people cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens. This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices towards women like honor killings, widow burning, or female genital mutilation. Some people still defend those practices as part of a cultural tradition. But violence toward women isn’t cultural; it’s criminal. Likewise with slavery, what was once justified as sanctioned by God is now properly reviled as an unconscionable violation of human rights.
Her views are grounded in a solid First Amendment foundation, which protects belief absolutely but leaves government latitude for the regulation of conduct, particularly conduct that harms others: “Universal human rights include freedom of expression and freedom of belief, even if our words or beliefs denigrate the humanity of others. Yet, while we are each free to believe whatever we choose, we cannot do whatever we choose, not in a world where we protect the human rights of all.”
This is not the worldview of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which her husband signed as president, but he like many others did not fully understand at the time that the “restoration” in the title was in fact misleading, as I discuss here. The propaganda behind the RFRAs as simple enforcement of the First Amendment has been exposed in the fights over the extreme RFRAs in Mississippi, Indiana, and Arkansas, as it should be. President William Jefferson Clinton was an extremely pro-religion President, as I discuss here, and only supported one law that undermined religion in any sense when he signed the anti-female genital mutilation bill. It is the spirit of that law that Hillary Clinton is expanding upon now.
The Vast Majority of Americans Agree with Clinton’s Position as It Applies to Contraception
“Reproductive health care” is an amorphous term that covers a lot of territory. I am going to focus here on just a subset: contraception. There is no question that her remarks are largely about contraception, and there is every reason for her to spotlight the contraception issue to win the presidency.
The right is exposed on this issue, because it has staked out an extreme position on contraception by now. No longer can it argue that it is simply “pro-life” while it takes a pass on contraception. It is fighting contraception per se in many corners.
For example, take a look at the right’s position in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and the many other cases challenging the mandate: it is anti-contraceptive, period. The same can be said for the right’s aggressive demands for “conscience clauses,” discussed by Professor Leslie Griffin here, which permit pharmacists and health care providers to refuse to supply contraception (and any other medication that violates their personal beliefs) to patients. Republicans today are irrationally fighting contraception and women’s privacy. Some on the right will argue that they only oppose contraception that works as an abortifacient, but not all. It is too late for that—they have been making arguments against all contraception for too long to be credible about being pro-contraception now.
The Big Picture on Contraception and Religious Believers in the United States
First, the vast majority of Americans support the use of contraception. In a 2012 Gallup Poll, 89 percent of Americans said birth control is morally acceptable, including 82 percent of Catholics.
Second, almost as many Americans are religious believers. The Pew Forum just released its latest report on religious affiliation and belief in the United States, confirming that a large majority of Americans—roughly 83 percent—is religious. (An interesting element of the report is the increase in migration across religious affiliations, but that is a topic for another day.)
Therefore, the vast majority of Americans support the use of contraception—regardless of faith.
Who objects to contraception? A small minority, but one that is heavily funded by the right, and is defined by religion. For example, Alan Sears, the head of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which was founded by right-wing Christians and was recently profiled here, has said that Griswold v. Connecticut, which established a constitutional right for a married couple to obtain contraception and engage in family planning, is a travesty. And the health coverage that Hobby Lobby successfully removed from its employees’ health care coverage in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby covered birth control methods (that were not in fact abortifacients). The United States Catholic bishops also rail against contraception, though with few results, as the polls indicate. In short, opposition to contraception is tied to religious belief, but it is a belief rejected or ignored by over 80 percent of Americans.
The Bottom Line on Contraception
The bottom line for politicians in both parties is that a vast majority of voters embrace contraception, regardless of belief. Some on the right are against contraception in all circumstances, and they are in real trouble. For those who are anti-abortion but pro- contraception, if they have supported conscience clauses and fought the contraception mandate, they have a lot of explaining to do as to why they have chosen to sacrifice all contraception on the altar of opposing abortion.
They must also explain why they have schemed against contraception when it has such a positive effect on health costs, as explained here. But that is a topic for another day.