Religion and abortion policy: The legislator's obligation
The U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions, along with a variety of health care services for women. The Virginia General Assembly last week approved legislation that requires abortion clinics to be regulated as hospitals, and providers say the stricter regulations will force many of them out of business. Both measures were pushed by anti-abortion activists. Should personal and religious views be allowed to prevent women from having access to a legal medical procedure?
Of course religion has a role to play in the public conversation about reproductive health policy. Religious organizations and official denominations have a right and a responsibility to speak out on all the issues that affect society from the war in Afghanistan and the federal budget to violence against women and family planning and abortion. They have a right to express their views to policy makers; comment on legislation and file amicus briefs in cases that come before the Supreme Court. Most progressives are happy when religious groups lend their weight to positions we agree with. Groups like the Center for American Progress even have senior fellows from the religious community on their roster. And both the Democratic and Republican parties hire faith organizers and seek to woo people of faith to vote for them. We start to question that right when the religious group disagrees with us.
More relevant than the question of what policy role religious institutions have is what standards policy makers should use in evaluating the positions taken by faith leaders and official denominations. Do religious leaders have a privileged place in policy discourse or are they one among many types of civil society organization that contribute to the policy process? I would suggest the same evaluative standard should apply to the recommendations of religious groups as is applied to NOW, Planned Parenthood, the NRA, the ACLU and the World Wildlife Federation.
A legislator needs to ask if the facts presented by the religious group are accurate. Unfortunately, in the debate about abortion and family planning religious groups opposed to those services often present as facts discredited opinion from claims that abortion causes breast cancer to the claim that women who have abortions suffer from a psychiatric disorder they call post abortion stress syndrome. Both these claims have been debunked by government and private researchers. The Catholic hierarchy classifies commonly accepted methods of contraception as abortion causing drugs or devices and does not accept the medical definition of pregnancy. A legislator has the obligation to reject such views.
A second standard the legislator needs to apply is a careful review of whether the position presented by the religious body represents the views of their membership or constituency. If a Sierra Club official came to the Congress and testified against the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, it is likely the legislator would discount the testimony and the lobbyist would be fired. But Catholic officials testify regularly against all abortion, a view that only 20 percent of Catholics share and more recently have claimed that birth control should not be included on the list of basic services that will be free of co-pays under the health care reform plan. Yet Catholic women overwhelmingly use modern contraception and I am sure would love to be relieved of insurance co-pays.
The third standard is whether what is suggested is constitutional. After all the legislators obligation is to uphold the constitution and contraception and abortion are both constitutionally protected rights.
It is also important that legislators ask if the recommendations of religious groups are supportive of the common good. Access to contraception and abortion particularly benefit families who have had all the children they can afford and contribute to preventing health complications from risky pregnancies and from botched illegal abortion. This needs to weigh heavily in accepting the moral objections to such services. A legislator also needs to note the diversity of religious views, with most religions considering family planning a key to responsible parenthood and abortion a serious matter but one that can be morally justified. At present, the Catholic bishops have supported a bill entitled the Protect Life Act which would over ride current legislation that requires hospitals to provide life saving treatment to any patient who comes to the emergency room. The bishops seek a "conscience" exemption that would permit the hospital to allow a woman who comes in with a pregnancy related complication that requires abortion to refuse the service and let her die. It is hard to see how that is in the public interest.
Citizens, including religious groups can use all sorts of methods to influence public policy: ethical and unethical. They are protected by the First Amendment. Legislators have a higher obligation: to their constituents, the constitution and the common good. The onus is on them to ensure a level playing field among all interest groups, to refuse to defer to religious arguments and to be as tough on the Catholic conference as they are on now.
Posted by: delusional1 | March 3, 2011 6:30 PM
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