Difficult issues of human sexuality, contraception, the role of women and religious freedom have come together as the Obama administration disregards religious objections to its contraception mandate while also promoting the harmful lifestyle that widely available contraception engenders, according to Helen Alvare, founder of the national women’s organization Women Speak for Themselves, who spoke at the University of St. Thomas last week.
The White House, Hollywood, Planned Parenthood and other powerful groups are sending the message that women’s freedom almost completely overlaps with sexual expression without procreation, and the government is not accepting dissent from this view, said Alvare, an associate law professor at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., who serves on the Pontifical Council for the Laity.
“That’s freedom to be able to be expressing oneself in a sexual way but without a child involved in it,” she said. “Very closely tied in with this is the coincident message that anyone who opposes [this] freedom is an enemy of human rights, and that includes religion.”
Alvare spoke as part of the Siena Symposium for Women, Family and Culture, an interdisciplinary faculty group founded at UST that is dedicated to rebuilding families and culture through scholarship and insights about the Catholic faith.
At the event, Alvare was awarded the Siena Symposium Humanitarian Leadership Award because “she is a tireless advocate for the unique gifts of women and for the natural family,” according to Siena co-director and UST law professor Teresa Collett.
Women Speak for Themselves consists of women who support the Church and its teachings on sex, marriage and family life. Nearly 40,000 have signed an open letter to President Obama and other members of government on religious liberty and women’s health that Alvare co-drafted last year.
She also is co-author and editor of “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves,” a collection of essays about faith and life issues that has garnered attention especially from younger women.
The contraception or “HHS Mandate” (named for the Department of Health and Human Services which is enforcing it as part of the Affordable Care Act) requires that, as the majority of employers renew their health insurance plans, they provide and pay for contraceptive, sterilization and abortifacient drugs for their employees. For-profit and non-profit institutions continue to legally challenge the mandate.
Consequences of widely available contraceptives are the cheapening of sex and misjudgment of the risks involved, she said. Studies show they factor into a higher incidence of sex outside of dating relationships, cohabitation, non-marital and unintended pregnancies and births, she added.
“When you introduce widespread contraception and abortion you take all the weight out of sex,” Alvare said. “It doesn’t have to mean a relationship. It doesn’t have to mean a child. It doesn’t mean you stay connected to anybody. It’s just expression.”
However, there is evidence that many women do not consider sexual expression as the main aspect of freedom and are often more concerned about other issues of family, career and life, she said.
Nor is the data the government has built its argument upon necessarily accurate, said Alvare, who pointed to Institute of Medicine recommendations to the HHS as containing many inaccuracies.
In a separate interview, Alvare said a lawsuit against the HHS mandate recently filed by a Minnesota company that provided equipment for the 2010 rescue of 33 Chilean miners reveals that corporations and institutions act out of conscience on a variety of issues.
“We want corporations to have a conscience when it comes to fair treatment of women, the way that they deal with the environment, to labor practices,” she said. “But somehow the one bit of conscience you don’t care if they have has to do with human sexuality, marriage, family, abortion — somehow that one is not permitted.”
Recent government actions related to religious institutions’ hiring of ministers and denying the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops a grant to fight human trafficking because of its stance on contraception and abortion represent other threats to religious liberty, Alvare said.
On the contraception issue and other threats to religious liberty, Catholics need to share the importance of religious freedom for individuals, communities and as a nation — and they also need to share their faith, she said.
“We have to get into the hard work of explaining what we believe about women and men, relationships, family, generosity to children, what sex is for, and that our bodies and souls are not separate,” she said.