Third Place Graduate/‘Older’ Student Essay: Sincerely held oppressive beliefs by Jamie L. Pizzi

FFRF awarded Jamie $1,000 for her essay.

By Jamie L. Pizzi

Thomas Aquinas believed that a woman who denied her husband sex was committing an offense graver than the act of raping a stranger. Pope Pius’ writings from the 1930s conveyed that when it came to consent, a husband had veto power over whether his wife could effectively say “no” to sexual intercourse with him. This is because non-contraceptive, vaginal-penile, penetrative sex within marriage has historically been viewed as the gold standard when it comes to the type of sex acceptable in the eyes of the Lord.

The deeply heteronormative viewpoint staunchly condemns non-procreative sex for pleasure, and zealously overrules any autonomy a woman has over own body by chastising the use of contraceptives as affirmatively negating the will of God. These are the long-standing beliefs that have translated into the narrative Hobby Lobby and other religiously affiliated organizations have used to justify their abstention from complying with aspects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) specifically created to provide women in the United States with access to life-saving contraceptives.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014), Hobby Lobby argued that providing forms of contraceptives it believed were abortifacients through its company-wide insurance plan would make it complicit in conduct it opposed on religious grounds. While modern science flatly contradicts that belief, the Supreme Court upheld Hobby Lobby’s ability to deny its female employees access to a full range of health care options under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993.

The court held that provisions of the ACA that imposed an obligation to provide certain forms of contraception that violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of the company’s owners were at odds with the RFRA, which “prohibits the federal government from taking any action that substantially burdens the exercise of religion unless that action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving a compelling government interest.”

The forms of contraception believed by Hobby Lobby to be abortion-inducing — intrauterine devices (IUDs) and Plan B emergency contraception — are not classified as abortifacients by the medical community. The fact that Hobby Lobby claimed to “sincerely believe” these forms of contraception were abortion-inducing was persuasive enough for them to succeed in their RFRA claim. Thus, a scientifically inaccurate religious belief grounded in the idea that women’s bodies are primarily to be of use for reproduction was given greater deference than the law of the land by the Supreme Court.

As shocking as this decision was for many defenders of the separation of church and state, even more concerning are the dangers this precedent sets for women across the country, especially those of minority and lower-income status. According to a widely-cited study by the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, black and Hispanic women face a higher percentage of unintended pregnancies compared to their white counterparts, with lack of education and lower income only widening this discrepancy. Women who experience unintended pregnancies and their children are more likely to face a myriad of serious health and economic issues throughout their lives, limiting their ability to experience equal opportunity in society.

The study went on to attribute “healthcare system factors” as one of the main dynamics contributing to this phenomenon. Some of these issues include limited access to family planning services among the most vulnerable sects of the population due to a lack of federal funding, as well as a disproportionate number of lower-income and minority women lacking health insurance to offset the steep cost of contraception.

The ACA sought to remedy these gaps in healthcare access by further expanding Medicaid and ensuring large private businesses provided certain levels of insurance coverage for their employees, including contraception. Yet, even though increasing the availability of contraceptives would likely decrease the amount of unintended pregnancies for all women, the precedent set by the Hobby Lobby decision presents a major roadblock in obtaining universal access to contraception and proves there is still a “sincerely held belief” that women do not deserve full autonomy over their own bodies.

Jamie, 25, from Bryn Mawr, Pa., is a third-year law student at Villanova University School of Law. She graduated from Rollins College, with a double major in anthropology and political science. In the summer of 2016, Jamie worked for the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Delivery of Legal Services Committee, where she completed policy research focused on access to justice issues. She was an intern for the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation and has become a research assistant for one of its founders.

Freedom From Religion Foundation