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The bad theology behind opposing the contraception mandate

Commentary Evanston, Ill.

The recent legal objections to the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate make me think of a controversy that figures repeatedly in the New Testament.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus criticizes religious leaders who refuse to temper their interpretation of the law with compassion and mercy, warning his followers of those who "tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."

Two millennia have passed since then, but some religious leaders are still tying up burdens for others to bear, and they are still using the same legalistic tactics attributed to Jesus' opponents in the New Testament.

Then, as now, we are being asked to believe that a tradition rooted in compassion and care for the most vulnerable somehow violates God's law. The plaintiffs who argue that corporations have religious liberty rights (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius, both headed to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday) or that signing a piece of paper declaring one's cherished religious principles is a religious burden (Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Sebelius) have resorted to similar legalisms. They are using their faith to put obstacles in the path of women seeking health care that is essential to their well-being and that of their families.

Christians should not think that these legal strategies represent the best part of our faith, and other people of goodwill should not be fooled into thinking that the Christian majority favors gamesmanship over compassion.

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The best features of the Christian tradition have valued the common good and the dignity of all people above narrow legalisms. Waving the flag of religious liberty is an attempt to turn the debate away from well-established facts that argue overwhelmingly for making reproductive health care available as widely as possible.

There is little dispute that women who can afford to avail themselves of good reproductive health care receive more education, earn a better living, enjoy better health and form more stable intimate relationships than women who cannot. It is abundantly clear that children born to mothers who are able to space their pregnancies are more likely to be healthy at birth, and less likely to experience developmental difficulties associated with low birth weight.

According to a review of medical literature conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, hormonal contraceptives can also confer other health benefits. They can help ease severe menstrual pain and excessive menstrual bleeding, but also "prevent menstrual migraines, treat pelvic pain ... and treat bleeding due to uterine fibroids. Perhaps most notably, oral contraceptives have been shown to have long-term benefits in reducing a woman's risk of developing endometrial and ovarian cancer, and short-term benefits in protecting against colorectal cancer."

As members of a faith that calls for compassion, Christians should be looking for ways to extend these benefits to all women and all communities. As people who practice a faith that values justice, we must be troubled by the fact that the rate of unplanned pregnancies among poor women is five times higher than it is among women whose incomes are 200 percent or more above the federal poverty level, and we should be moved to help spread the benefits of reproductive health care more broadly. This is what the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act seeks to do. However, its opponents are seeking to poke the mandate so full of holes that the very women who need this coverage most will not receive it.

This is not only poor policy, but also poor theology. Nothing in the Christian tradition requires that we deny poor women health benefits and services that are readily available to the rest of society. Nothing in the Christian tradition suggests that an employer's scruples deserve greater consideration than an employee's health. Instead, the words of Jesus warn us against placing heavy burdens on the backs of those least able to bear them.

[The Rev. Cheryl B. Anderson is a professor of the Old Testament at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.]

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