From a presentation I gave at the liberal arts college where I teach as part of a panel discussion on the recent contraception controversies. I tried to challenge the default language we always seem to use in these debates and I don’t think I was really understood. Which I think proves the point of how powerfully we are shaped by language and the habits of language systems.

I want to try and do two things in my allotted time:

I. Briefly trace (and comment on) the events that have led to this latest set of controversies.

II. Briefly sketch an account of moral agency and personhood that might help to reframe some of the gender-related questions and answers surrounding these controversies.


Two years ago this month the Affordable Care Act became law. You’ve heard it derisively referred to by critics of the President as Obamacare. Despite the fact that this admittedly imperfect law will extend health care coverage to some 30 million uninsured Americans; that it stops insurance companies from imposing preexisting condition exclusions on children; that it allows young adults to stay on or be added to their parents’ family policy; and that it prohibits insurers from rescinding coverage when you get sick; despite all this, critics of Mr. Obama, including and especially those seeking the Republican nomination for the presidency, have vowed to repeal the law. (In about ten days the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments in a case challenging the law’s constitutionality).

One of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act is that preventive health services will no longer cost anything out-of-pocket (no co-pays). The Secretary of Health and Human Services was given the power to decide which health services should be considered preventive, and in consultation with the Institute of Medicine, Secretary Kathleen Sebelius determined that all FDA-approved contraceptive measures should be counted as preventive health services, a category which includes birth control and sterilization procedures.

In January of this year this new regulation regarding contraception went into effect. In its earlier, interim rules HHS had excluded from this requirement only those “religious employers” who serve and employ members of their own faith traditions. This exempted churches from the rule, but not Catholic universities or social-service agencies and hospitals that serve and employ non-Catholics. Church leaders had requested a broader exemption on the grounds that the mandate would require Catholic institutions to act against their own teachings, amounting to a violation of conscience and of religious liberty. The Obama administration, after careful consideration and much consultation with health care professionals and church leaders, refused to grant the broader exemption.

Enter election year politics.

When the news was announced in January that the narrower exemption would stand, the Obama administration took a beating from both the right and the left. Liberal commentator, E.J. Dionne, a practicing Catholic, argued that the Obama administration “mishandled this decision not once but twice.”  “In the process,” Dionne said, “[President] Obama threw his progressive Catholic allies under the bus and strengthened the hand of those inside the church who had originally sought to derail the health care law.”[1]

“Those inside the church” in this context are the bishops—the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, specifically, a canonical entity governing American Catholics and the Church’s public policy arm. The USCCB has framed the Health and Human Services mandate as a religious freedom issue and lobbied aggressively for its dismantling. Their outrage at the January announcement prompted the Obama administration to revise the regulation and announce a compromise. Listening carefully to the concerns of the bishops and other Catholic leaders (and taking heat from supporters who thought the President was being too deferential to the USCCB), the administration revised the law to guarantee that no religiously affiliated institution will have to pay for services that violate its moral beliefs. Instead, if a woman’s employer is an objecting university, hospital or other religious agency, her insurer – not the employer – will be required to offer her coverage at no cost.

The USCCB, not surprisingly, dug in even harder. In a statement issued after the compromise was announced, the bishops said that the President’s proposal “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.”[2]

The bishops’ intransigence has dominated the news coverage of the HHS mandate. What hasn’t really made the headlines is the fact that many prominent Catholic leaders have applauded the common-sense, common-ground solution proposed by the White House. This shouldn’t be surprising since a 24/7 cable news business – and I do mean business – requires the controversial and contentious for its very survival.

What is also at play here is the not-so-subtle way that media coverage of the HHS mandate encourages anti-Catholicism both within other strands of Christianity and in the culture generally. Of course the bishops do this, too. Their silence on the Iraq war, for instance, and on torture (which according to Catholic moral law is an intrinsic evil) betrays their selective agenda when it comes to theological issues in the public square. And of course the decades-long sex abuse scandal has all but destroyed public trust in the highest levels of leadership of the Catholic Church.

But the way that much of the media and our public discourse have shaped the narrative of this most recent controversy has contributed to reductive understandings of Catholicism and Catholic teaching, and to blanket dismissals of the Church’s relevance. Catholicism is identified exclusively, if unwittingly, with the bishops or the pope. More broadly, it is simply fashionable in our time to be contemptuous of religion generally – if not overtly hostile to it, then at least breezily indifferent or willfully ignorant.

And with all of this comes a kind of bemused paternalism toward Catholic women. “How can they stay in such a sexist, oppressive Church?” “What is wrong with these women?” It doesn’t seem to occur to those of us outside that tradition that many female Catholics are mad as hell at the bishops, and that, like women of other faiths, their relationship to their religious tradition is – at one and the same time – dispiriting and nourishing, infuriating and edifying, heartbreaking and lifesaving. This mostly unacknowledged condescension toward Catholic women reveals, I suggest, another battlefront in the “war on women” created by this controversy.


One of the things we’ve been reminded of in recent weeks is that our language for talking about matters of sex and fertility and women’s bodies is, inescapably, the language of modernity: of self-determination, of individual rights, of freedom and autonomy. For persons who have been denied liberty or the ability to actualize their own goals and dreams this is precious language, promising language, the language of hope in circumstances long on hopelessness.

But this language and the philosophical and anthropological assumptions that come with it also has its limits. The language of “the free, unencumbered self” is, in some ways, a false and futile way of speaking the full truth of human personhood; it can be wielded and owned in ways that in fact lead not to freedom but to enslavement.

Part of what I mean here is that once we’ve surrendered in a wholesale, uncritical way to Enlightenment individualism and to the language of “rights” – once women have done this in the pursuit, say, of affordable preventive health care – we risk our unwitting participation in a system (the industrial economy, the nihilistic politics of consumption and degradation) that wants to turn our bodies into commodities, that locates desire exclusively in consumer choice, that encourages escape from all material constraints and community obligations in the restless search for the perfect job, the perfect mate, the perfect body, the perfect life.

If I can be so bold (or so foolish in this context!) to quote a white, male, septuagenarian – the farmer-poet Wendell Berry:

As the emphasis on individual liberty has increased, the liberty and power of most individuals has declined. Most people are now finding that they are free to make very few significant choices. It is becoming steadily harder for ordinary people – the unrich, the unprivileged – to choose a kind of work for which they have a preference, a talent, or a vocation, to choose  where they will live, to choose to work (or to live) at home, or even to choose to raise their own children. And most individuals (“liberated” or not) choose to conform not to local ways and conditions but to a rootless and placeless monoculture of commercial expectations and products. We try to be “emotionally self-sufficient” at the same time that we are entirely and helplessly dependent for our “happiness” on an economy that abuses us along with everything else. We want the liberty of divorce from spouses and independence from family and friends, yet we remain indissolubly married to a hundred corporations that regard us at best as captives and at worst prey. The net result of our much-asserted individualism appears to be that we have become “free” for the sake of not much self-fulfillment at all.[3]

What does this have to do with birth control? Well, it has a lot to do with sex so let me, in my few remaining moments, try to draw some connections and conclusions in an attempt to answer that question.

The anger that women have rightly felt in the wake of the Catholic bishops’ response to the HHS mandate; to the hate speech of Rush Limbaugh; to the politically calculated calls for the demise of Planned Parenthood – this righteous anger is rooted not so much, I hope, in an appeal to autonomy for autonomy’s sake, or to sexual freedom for sexual freedom’s sake, but in what the Christian (Catholic) tradition would call “moral agency”: the capacity to practice and pursue the goods necessary for a full and flourishing life. And a full and flourishing life for me cannot be merely a private concern, a matter of my own individual rights. Personhood is not self-sufficient subjectivity; it is not unchecked freedom. In the Christian tradition, as a person I am free but I am also subject to the freedom of others. My well-being is linked to theirs; we share mutual obligations and responsibilities. Thus personhood is relational, not a stripping away of relationality; moral agency is always “sustained by a network of relationships.”[4]

Managing fertility is one of the many material realities of exercising this kind of agency, this kind of personhood. But the sex that is presupposed by the need for birth control is understood here not within the industrial economy where desire is commodified and sentimentalized and bodies are abstracted and consumed, but in an economy of gift, where human relationships are never depersonalized and where the mystery of self-giving communion is at the heart of sexual love.

This is a lot to remember in the heat of the moment in the back seat of a car (do people still have sex in the back seats of cars?). But my point is that the whole ecology of issues and practices related to contraception should not be located exclusively (or even primarily) in the language of rights but in deeper anthropological, even theological, questions: What is the nature of the good life? What does human flourishing look like? What does moral agency, exercised in sexual matters and all other matters, require of me?

[3] Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community (Pantheon, 1992), 151-152.

[4] Seyla Benhabib, Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (Routledge, 1992), 51.