What the Christian Right Gets Wrong About Birth Control

A religious minority is emboldened with the current conservative makeup of the Supreme Court, forging a battle on the front lines of statehouses, not just against abortion—but against contraception.

Participants at the Capital Pride parade in 2012 in Washington, D.C. (Adam Fagen / Flickr)

In a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed earlier this year, Robyn Strader, a nurse practitioner working at CVS, claimed she was fired for religious discrimination because she refused to provide birth control. “I am a Christian and longtime member of a Baptist Church,” she said. “I believe that all human life is created in God’s image and should be protected. For this reason, I cannot participate in facilitating an abortion or participate in facilitating contraceptive use that could prevent the implantation of an embryo, cause an abortion or contribute to infertility.”

The Supreme Court has also used the principle of religious freedom to exempt employers from providing insurance coverage for birth control. First, the Court ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor in a case against the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act, exempting this private, family-owned company from covering birth control. More recently a Supreme Court ruling extended exemptions to publicly traded companies, private institutions, nonprofits, universities and other types of employers that claim to object religiously or, as the Trump administration added the term, “morally,” to contraception.

In the Hobby Lobby case, the religious lobby articulated their beliefs, similar to Strader’s, that life begins at conception, the moment when a sperm fertilizes an egg to produce an embryo, and they define an “abortion” to include the failure of an embryo to implant in the uterus after fertilization. They then argue, inaccurately, that some methods of birth control including IUDs work by preventing embryos from implanting in the uterus, thereby causing what they call “abortions.”

I will call these embryo abortions, as opposed to the medical term for abortion, which is the loss of a pregnancy after an embryo has attached to the uterus. The medical establishment only considers someone pregnant after the successful attachment of an embryo to the uterus because only then can we measure the pregnancy hormone HCG thus diagnosing, or confirming, someone as pregnant.

Strader and Hobby Lobby are part of a vocal minority on the religious right claiming the use of some methods of birth control is immoral, strategically conflating use of birth control with having an abortion. This contrasts with 92 percent of Americans who consider using birth control a morally acceptable behavior, according to a recent Gallup poll.

This religious minority is emboldened with the current conservative makeup of the Supreme Court, forging a battle on the front lines of statehouses, not just against abortion—but against contraception. Recently, an amendment to a Missouri bill was introduced by Senator Paul Wieland (R-Mo.) barring the use of public funding for any medication or device that would cause “destruction of, or prevent the implantation of a fertilized ovum.” Wieland said, “If a device that’s been approved by the FDA kills a human life, that is an abortion.” Although these legislators aim to limit abortions, their actions have an effect opposite to their intention: increased abortions.

The scientific fact not addressed, or not known, by the religious right is that embryo abortions are much more common when no birth control method is used. Researchers have estimated when a couple does not use birth control (the default when contraception is less accessible) 30 percent of embryos created never implant and another 30 percent briefly implant before being passed from the body without the woman even noticing, adding up to a majority of embryos formed. In other words, the default state of sex without contraception is embryo abortions—or what the right sees as a large loss of potential life.

Anyone holding religious beliefs about embryos deserving protection should actively support the use of birth control in general, specifically IUDs, to prevent these embryo losses as much as possible. Birth control prevents embryos from forming in the first place and therefore prevents failed implantation and embryo abortions.

A religious person may argue that when embryos are formed and lost without using birth control, it is part of God’s plan. It seems it would then still be part of God’s plan if embryos are lost with an IUD in place. There would just be fewer losses.

Increasing access to and use of effective contraception can reduce unintended pregnancies and further reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Regarding IUDs, it’s important to note all current scientific evidence supports that they work primarily by preventing fertilization, rather than interfering with the implantation of embryos. Since fertilization does not occur, the argument about “preventing implantation” of the embryo is moot. As researchers Ortiz and Croxatto wrote in a review article, “The bulk of the data indicate that if any embryos are formed in the chronic presence of an IUD, it happens at a much lower rate than in non-IUD users. The common belief that the usual mechanism … is destruction of embryos in the uterus is not supported by empirical evidence.” 

Given this evidence alone—that fewer embryos are formed and subsequently lost in the presence of contraception—there would be a strong argument for religious employers to support access to all contraceptives. IUDs do more than prevent embryo abortions, they also effectively prevent medically recognized abortions. In a study by J.F. Peipert and colleagues, when no-cost IUDs and implants were widely used in St. Louis, abortion rates in the city plummeted to less than half of the national rates. A Colorado Family Planning initiative made long-acting contraceptive methods (IUDs and implants) affordable, which resulted in a 50 percent drop in teen births and abortions, saving the state 70 million dollars.

As the CDC summarized in recent research, “Increasing access to and use of effective contraception can reduce unintended pregnancies and further reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States.”

The misinformation that birth control users “abort” more embryos than nonusers—or IUDs cause abortions—affects countless women trying to find the best methods of birth control to manage their health. These inaccurate beliefs underlies Strader’s refusal to provide birth control and motivate employers to make choices that run counter to their values. This is a critical time to support birth control access and prevent unintended pregnancies since abortion access is under threat.

With greater knowledge of the facts surrounding contraceptive methods, employers and other stakeholders can act with integrity and in accordance with their actual values—and women will be the beneficiaries of greater healthcare access, not less.

Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.

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Mimi Zieman M.D. is an ob-gyn, the author of the medical guide Managing Contraception, and has served on the CDC committee writing U.S. contraceptive guidelines. She is a fierce advocate for reproductive justice and has testified numerous times in the Georgia state legislature against bills that have no basis in science. She has a memoir-in-progress about being the doctor and only woman on an Everest expedition. Sign up for her women’s health newsletter here, and follow her on Twitter, IG, FB and LinkedIn.