Freedom from Government (Birth) Control

An interview with Helen Alvaré of Women Speak for Themselves

Washington, DC – More than 40,000 women are putting religious freedom ahead of the political fiction that says all women want free contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients.
The group, Women Speak for Themselves, was founded by Helen Alvaré and Kim Daniels in response to the Health and Human Services mandate for insurers to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortifacients at no cost to their clients. 
Catholic World Report caught up with Helen Alvaré to find out more about what this growing group of women is doing to fight the HHS mandate. 
Alvaré is a professor of law at George Mason University, a consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Laity, a consultant for ABCNews, and the chair of the Conscience Protection Task Force at the Witherspoon Institute. She co-authored and edited the book, Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak For Themselves
CWR: What is “Women Speak for Themselves” and how did it come about?
Alvaré: It came about because I was shocked and dismayed that the news reports about the response to the HHS mandate, as well as the words out of the mouths of some members of Congress, claimed that this HHS mandate fight was women vs. men. And bad men, particularly religious men, hated women and therefore opposed the mandate. I knew that this was untrue in my own situation and I knew many women who would feel the same. 
The news reports were pouring in on February 16, 2012, and I decided that I should draft an open letter. I bounced it back and forth with my good friend Kim Daniels, who is a religious liberty attorney, and we crafted it and sent it out to a couple of dozen friends and asked for signatures. This cascade of signatures started to come in so that in about 48 hours we had about 2,500, and by the end of the week we had 7,500. We hadn’t done any asking beyond that original couple dozen women, so we knew there was an untapped, unvocalized sentiment out there. We expressed it in two points: one is that women particularly care for religious freedom and second, the idea that contraception equals women’s freedom and trumps religious freedom was simplistic and wrong.
It has now grown to about 40,000-41,000 women online with whom I correspond about every three weeks to keep them up-to-date on things that affect the mandate and religious liberty, but increasingly things that affect the whole plane that basically says the ability to express yourself sexually is the biggest part of women’s freedom.
CWR: What is the current situation with the HHS ruling? 
Alvaré: I read the HHS executive summary this morning. And basically they have said: “We have taken care of all the religious liberty problems by forcing the insurers to do all the work.” And what I mean by “doing all the work” is the insurers tell the eligible employees and their daughters, “Hey, I’ve got some free contraception coverage for you, and here is the educational materials about it, and here is the scope of your coverage, etc…”
Two points on that. One, they’ve forgotten that it is the religious institutions buying the health policies that triggers the coverage, so [those institutions] are still implicated. And two, they haven’t grappled with the question of institutional religious freedom. That is, can the government not only force a religious person or institution to do something, but can it walk inside the relationship between an employer and employee of a religious institution and say, “Okay, we are managing part of that relationship here on a topic that ties extraordinarily closely to your mission.” 
So, based on this executive description of it—and what I think was tweaked was the self-insurance provision, but this was altered to the direction of “we will get contraceptive coverage through a religious institution to your people one way or another.”
CWR: And what about the recent ruling on Hobby Lobby that is allowing them to continue to challenge the mandate without paying the fine for non-compliance? Is it a good sign?
Alvaré: That’s big. It is a good sign because it wasn’t just Republican-appointed judges that joined in. There was one, I believe, Democratic-placed judge who made up the five-judge majority there. It is at the Court of Appeals level. That is significant. 
Additionally, here you have a company, for-profit, run by people who are themselves religious and who attempt to infuse that into their dealings—and I cannot hesitate to add that, classically, people who are on the left want every company to…infuse conscience into corporate behavior. They just don’t like the content of this conscience. But with Hobby Lobby you are talking about a for-profit corporation, which is a couple steps removed from religious institutions, which is also very much implicating religious conscience.
So Hobby Lobby has been allowed to continue to challenge the mandate while not paying fines even after the deadline for paying fines would kick in. That is a good sign. With the Religious Freedom Restoration Act we are going to have a good strong case should it get to the Supreme Court. 
CWR: What connection do you see between the HHS mandate and the recent DOMA ruling at the Supreme Court?
Alvaré: Sadly, there is a connection to religious freedom law generally and the DOMA ruling. Justice Kennedy claimed that the scope of the majority’s opinion in the Windsor case, the DOMA case, was limited to situations where the federal government has spoken after the state has said, “You may think you have a marriage, but we aren’t going to count it as such.” I characterize this response as: “We as a group do not understand what you are doing as marriage and we think that opposite-sex as marriage is better for people, particularly children and the vulnerable.”
He [Justice Kennedy] characterized this position generally, with a ridiculous lack of basis, to have the purpose and sole intent of demeaning people, trying to injure them, taking away their dignity and personhood and humiliating their children. Once that willingness to read ill will into support for opposite-sex marriage—or I should just say marriage, period—is articulated, it is beyond easy to apply that to anyone who does not support same-sex marriage or who wants to say differently.
Opposite-sex marriage is a great human good. To draw on hatred to distinguish the two forms of union is on its face problematic. So opposition to same-sex marriage motivated by hatred is what religious entities are trying to do when they seek exemption. After this decision there is language that we [marriage supporters] ought to come away with nothing. We are on the hating side, as Justice Kennedy calls it, of this equation.
CWR: What about the elephant in the room? Do you think the HHS mandate or even the DOMA ruling would have come about if Catholics had learned about and understood the Church’s teaching on contraception? Statistically, Catholics use contraception as widely as most other populations. Sex has been reduced to what George Weigel calls just another “contact sport.” Do you think some of these cultural issues would have been forestalled if Catholics had heeded the Church’s wisdom?
Alvaré: First, on the record, I want to say that George Weigel’s analogy is better. I’ve use the language of tennis, but “contact sport” is actually more accurate.
Second, it seems to me that the Catholic treasury of theology and social teaching, is in the best position, particularly since the Theology of the Body, to make an attractive, intellectually true, and empirically defensible case for marrying the notions of sex, marriage, and children. To the extent that we have failed to do that, and it is hard to get the exact statistics on that, it really is a sad lost opportunity. We can’t predict what would have happened given the cultural changes, especially given the technology shock of the pill and abortion, but there might have been a greater understanding of what we were trying to get at. Instead of people believing that either we hate sex, or our goal was to make everybody believe every detail of the Catholic faith, it would have been a contribution to create a more child-welcoming society, or a society that understands that sex is always the place were existence has its beginning and no matter what else you may want to say about it, that makes it a very weighty thing. 
We probably could have made a greater contribution, though I’m not sure what would have been accomplished against the cultural tides, but I sure wish it had been done over the last 30, 40 years.
The audience for it, to me, is as eager as ever. Whenever I speak at a conference, I have hundreds of 20-somethings, teenagers, young women and men wanting to tell me their stories. I don’t see how we fail to do it now because it is not only that the audience is more than ready and more than desperate, but we have the tools. 
CWR: It seems that your work has exploded in unanticipated ways. What have been some of the advances made by “Women Speak for Themselves”?
Alvaré: As a resident of DC, I’m acutely aware that unless Obama spreads an executive order, as he is extremely prone to do, very little work actually gets done here and it is better to have things done locally. That is where we have had our greatest successes.
After every time I send out a mailing, I get a number of responses, sometimes a few, sometimes hundreds. I get: “Here is the letter I wrote for the Denver Post,” “Here is the letter I wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle,” “Here is a letter I wrote to the Indianapolis Star Tribune,” “Here is a picture of us standing on a bridge on Labor Day weekend on Martha’s Vineyard and giving out pamphlets about religious freedom,” etc…
You know how religious orders have charisms—I think Women Speak for Themselves has a charism, and it is women who are above-average educated and above-average activists, so they want intelligent material, fact sheets, original documents from the HHS, articles from law reviews, medical journals. And they want direction, because as easy as it is, some women are still are little worried about visiting a member of Congress or writing a letter to the editor. First, I always tell them, remember the members of Congress are more afraid of you than you are of them. We are just providing them resources to give them confidence, to encourage them. 
There are very few emails I get that I don’t respond to. I love these women. When I go around the country as I’ve started to do, I run into women who say, “Oh, I’m on your list, and here is what I did.” It is a true grassroots group.
CWR: What can the average woman in the pew do, beyond prayer and fasting?
Alvaré: Prayer and fasting is huge, and I am confident that we are alive and not dead given what is against us as a movement because of it. I find that women who are really busy, or older women, are really engaged in that—women who have said, “I can’t go visit my member of Congress, but what can I do for you?”
The other thing women can do is to make some noise, which means letters to the editor or speaking at the communities that are open to you: parishes, schools, etc…
You get the feeling if you are people like us that everyone else is having a party that we were not invited to. Obama is not calling us from Air Force One, we are not getting tweets saying, “Stand with Women Speak for Themselves,” we are not getting any of that fun, “wow, you guys rock,” girl-power stuff. We have to do it for ourselves.  
Unless we make visible that we are having the party: it is fun, it’s smart, we’re correct, and we don’t go about it with ad hominems. Unless we make visible that we too are a community that they want to join—and you can only do that in a personal way, school, parish, paper—that is what these women can do that no one else can do but them.


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About Carrie Gress, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She is the editor at the Catholic Women's online magazine Theology of Home. She is the author of several books including The Anti-Mary Exposed, Theology of Home, and . Theology of Home II: The Spiritual Art of Homemaking. Visit her online at