A Sign Speaks: The Message Behind ‘The PILL KILLS’

I spent several hours yesterday morning hanging around outside the Supreme Court. It was a very lively scene.

The justices were hearing oral arguments in Zubik v. Burwell, a case challenging aspects of the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Some religious non-profits, such as colleges and nursing homes, don’t want to tolerate the presence of birth control in student and employee health-care plans, even though they don’t have to pay for it. The government has given them an opt-out, but they object to it because it requires them to fill out a short form or write a letter to the government.

Advocates on both sides rallied at the high court yesterday. A large contingent from Americans United was there along with our allies in groups like Catholics for Choice, the National Woman’s Law Center and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. (AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn addressed the throng, and Erin Hagen, our field associate, led some spirited chants.)

You could feel the energy moving through the crowd on this warm, early spring day. Our side was diverse – young and old, believers and non-believers, men and women, straight and gay, black, brown and white.

I walked over to check out the folks on the other side. Their crowd consisted mostly of priests, nuns and a contingent of kids brought in from local Catholic schools. I was struck by a sign several of them were carrying. It depicted a picture of birth control pills with the words, “The PILL KILLS.”

Anti-birth control activists protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court

See, we have been told for months now that this court battle is really about “religious freedom.” But every now and then, someone slips up and exposes what’s really going on here – as the wavers of that sign did.

These people don’t want anyone to have birth control. No one. For no reason. Why? Because, in their view, it interferes with God’s plan for the size of your family and is somehow “immoral.”

It’s a ridiculous argument and because it’s so foolish it can only be propped up with lies. The pill kills? Hardly. Safe and affordable birth control has saved countless lives.

If you doubt that, ask women in the Third World who have smaller families that they can actually support thanks to birth control. Talk to the women who were able to get an education and professional jobs because birth control made it possible for them to plan their families and, subsequently, their lives. Discuss it with the women who suffer from irregular or absent menstrual periods, severe menstrual cramps, endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome who get relief from these ailments thanks to birth control.

As I watched the priests and nuns and their followers hoist their signs and cry about “religious freedom,” I had to wonder what’s really going on here. A request that someone fill out a short form didn’t cause all of this fuss and angst.

We must go deeper. What’s really bothering these folks?

I believe it’s something as simple as this: Fewer and fewer people are listening to them these days. When it comes to human sexuality, Americans have decided to take control. Most want the ability to plan their families, and birth control makes that possible.

Affordable and reliable birth control – and by this I refer specifically to progestin, a form of contraceptive so ubiquitous it is universally known as “the pill” – revolutionized American society. If you can control a woman’s reproductive life, you can control that woman. The theocrats suffered a serious blow when they lost that power. After all, they had it for something like, oh, 2,000 years.

Women and their partners secured the ability to decide when and if to have children and how many to have. Suddenly, far-right religious leaders found that they could no longer compel women to live under dogmatic rules found in the ancient religious texts that they believe should form the basis of public policy.

Bottom line: Religious zealots used to be able to force us all to live under the rules of their religion. They can’t anymore, and that smarts. They’re not above using fear and lies to get some of that power back. They’re only too happy to try to clothe their naked power grab in the noble garment of religious liberty.

The sign on that message – The PILL KILLS – is short. But it ends up saying quite a lot.