Contraception controversy: Church and state and birth control

A federal regulation mandating that all health insurance companies provide contraception coverage with no out-of-pocket cost to clients has prompted a sharp backlash from many religious groups – especially Catholics. It also reignited a debate over the morality of birth control that had lain dormant.

Some say the mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services infringes religious freedom because it does not offer a sufficiently broad exemption for faith-based employers and insurers.

Others argue that contraceptives are inherently immoral and should not be subsidized to make them more readily available. They also say that contraceptives are harmful to society.

Religious groups that are not necessarily opposed to contraception are also disturbed that the mandate covers sterilization procedures and so-called “morning-after” pills — such as Plan B and ella — that some say act as abortifacients, though there is an ongoing debate about their effect.

The emergence of new forms of contraceptives, like Plan B and ella, will likely keep the birth control issue on the boil. In December 2011, the Obama administration pleased social conservatives and upset social liberals when the HHS overruled the Food and Drug Administration and decided to block over-the-counter sales of “morning after” pills to girls under age 17.

This source guide provides background and resources for reporters covering this volatile topic.




Articles, blog posts

National sources


Health and medical organizations

  • John Brehany

    John Brehany is executive director of the Catholic Medical Association. He says there has been some confusion about whether and when sterilization is ever acceptable at Catholic hospitals. His organization opposes the contraception coverage rule and says the revised mandate falls far short of addressing opponents’ concerns.

  • Carol Keehan

    Sister Carol Keehan is president and chief executive officer of the Catholic Health Association, which has worked to improve children’s health care coverage through a partnership with the Campaign for Children’s Health Care. Contact Fred Caesar.

    The association initially reacted positively when the White House revised the coverage mandate but later said it plans to scrutinize the matter further.

Religious groups and their advocates

  • Jon O’Brien

    Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice, which believes that the individual conscience should be the keystone for moral decision-making on reproductive rights matters and that affordable contraception should be available to all.

  • Seventh-day Adventist Church

    The Seventh-day Adventist Church has an official website with resources on beliefs and practices, missions and statements on the livelihood of practitioners and members. The website has a page with links to the church’s official statements on birth control, human rights, climate change and more than 100 other aspects of debate and culture.

    Contact: 301-680-6000.
  • Tony Perkins

    Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council, which works to foster “a culture in which all human life is valued, families flourish, and religious liberty thrives.” He also leads the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which tracks religious persecution around the world.

    He announced Feb. 20, 2012, that he was releasing a letter signed by 2,500 religious leaders who oppose Obama’s contraception coverage mandate.

  • Shari Rendall

    Shari Rendall is director of legislation and public policy for Concerned Women for America, a conservative group that aims to bring biblical principles to all levels of public policy.

    The group mobilized its members to oppose the coverage mandate.

  • Jay Sekulow

    Jay Sekulow is chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., a leading pro-life religious legal advocacy group that frequently litigates on behalf of religious groups.

    He and his organization have been active in the fight against the contraceptive coverage mandate.

Other advocacy groups

  • Jennifer A. Marshall

    Jennifer A. Marshall is director of domestic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., and former director of family studies at the Family Research Council. She has written widely about Republican support of moral issues such as abstinence education, defense of marriage and welfare.

    She co-hosted a Feb. 27, 2012, panel discussion of religious liberty issues raised by the contraception mandate.

  • Louise Melling

    Louise Melling is a deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union and the director of its Center for Liberty. She is the former director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project.

  • Cecile Richards

    Cecile Richards is president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Contact through the media department.

    Contact: 212-261-4433.


  • Caitlin E. Borgmann

    Caitlin E. Borgmann is an associate professor at City University of New York School of Law and editor of the Reproductive Rights Prof Blog, which posts news about abortion and other reproductive rights issues. Borgmann has testified before several state legislatures about reproductive rights.

  • Ryan E. Lawrence

    Dr. Ryan E. Lawrence is a psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian and is an instructor in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. He co-authored a 2007 article in the New England Journal of Medicine about health professionals’ views on providing treatments to which they have moral objections, such as certain contraceptives. He also has written other scholarly articles on related topics. Lawrence’s academic credentials include an M.Div. degree.

    Contact: 212-305-3090.
  • Daniel C. Maguire

    Daniel C. Maguire is a theology professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee and editor of Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions. He is also president of the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics, a multifaith organization of religious scholars interested in reproductive health and other issues.

  • Elaine Tyler May

    Elaine Tyler May teaches in the history and American studies departments at the University of Minnesota. Her books include America + the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation.

  • Sandra Reznick

    Dr. Sandra Reznick is an associate professor in the department of pharmaceutical sciences at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y. She teaches a graduate-level course in reproductive pharmacology and can explain differences between the various “morning-after” pills, such as Plan B and Ella.

  • John A. Robertson

    John A. Robertson holds the Vinson and Elkins Chair at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. He has written and lectured widely on law and bioethical issues. His books include The Rights of the Critically Ill.

  • Leslie Woodcock Tentler

    Leslie Woodcock Tentler is a history professor at the Catholic University of America and the author of Catholics and Contraception: An American History.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Helen M. Alvaré

    Helen M. Alvaré is a professor of law at George Mason University in Virginia. Alvaré chaired the commission investigating clerical abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was an adviser to Pope Benedict XVI’s Pontifical Council for the Laity, as well as an ABC News consultant. Her scholarship regularly addresses current controversies about marriage, parenting and the new reproductive technologies.

    She previously worked with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-life Activities, and her areas of expertise include new reproductive technologies. She can discuss Catholic positions on contraception within the context of American civil law.

  • Marvin M. Ellison

    Marvin M. Ellison is Willard S. Bass Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, author of Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

    He studies the ethics of sexuality, health care and other issues and is a participating scholar with the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.

  • Mary Ann Glendon

    Mary Ann Glendon is the Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School and was a vocal advocate of  Pope John Paul II’s views on women, abortion, sexuality and related issues. In 2004 the pope appointed her as head of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, at that time the highest Vatican post ever held by a woman. From 2008 to 2009 she was the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

    She is one of nearly 100 scholars nationwide who signed a letter denouncing Obama’s contraception coverage mandate.

  • Alan Mittleman

    Alan Mittleman is a professor of Jewish thought at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan as well as the director of JTS’ Tikvah Institute for Jewish Thought.

    He is one of nearly 100 scholars nationwide who signed a letter denouncing Obama’s contraception coverage mandate.

  • Stephen F. Schneck

    Stephen F. Schneck is chairman of the department of politics and director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., which studies current public policies regarding Catholic social attitudes.

    He has written that it is a mistake to assume that Catholic voters are monolithic or that they will all follow bishops’ lead on issues such as contraception.

In the South

  • Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im

    Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta. He is an expert on Islamic law, and his interests also include human rights, reproductive rights and women’s rights in Islam. He is a participating scholar with the Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics.

  • Robert D. Benne

    Robert D. Benne is professor emeritus and research associate in the Department of Religion/Philosophy at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. He has written about visions of life through film.

  • Christine E. Gudorf

    Christine E. Gudorf, professor of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami, has written about the issues of integrating ethics into hospital care. She teaches a course on reproductive ethics and wrote a chapter on contraception and abortion among Catholics for the book Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions.

  • Amy Laura Hall

    Amy Laura Hall is an associate professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. She teaches courses on Christian love and has written extensively on reproductive ethics.

  • Francis Manion

    Francis Manion is senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice in Washington, D.C., who specializes in First Amendment law and pro-life legal matters.  He has represented pharmacists and other health care professionals who have refused on moral principle to provide certain services to patients.

  • Gerald R. McDermott

    Gerald R. McDermott is the Anglican chair of divinity history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala. He is one of nearly 100 scholars nationwide who signed a letter denouncing Obama’s contraception coverage mandate.

  • Russell Moore

    Russell Moore is editor-in-chief of Christianity Today. Named in 2017 as one of Politico Magazine’s top fifty influence-makers in Washington, Moore was previously President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

    He is one of nearly 100 scholars nationwide who signed a letter denouncing Obama’s contraception coverage mandate.

In the Midwest

  • Gloria Albrecht

    Gloria Albrecht
 is professor emerita of religion and ethics at the University of Detroit Mercy. She wrote a chapter on contraception and abortion within Protestant Christianity for the book Sacred Rights: The Case for Contraception and Abortion in World Religions.

  • Cristina Traina

    Cristina Traina is a religion professor at Northwestern University in Chicago whose work in Christian theology and ethics includes an emphasis on Roman Catholic and feminist thought.  She has written about her experiences as a married Catholic woman dealing with church teachings on artificial contraception.

  • Laurie Zoloth

    Laurie Zoloth is a professor of religion and ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where she previously served as dean. Before coming to the University of Chicago, she was a professor of religious studies at Northwestern University and professor of bioethics and medical humanities at the university’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Zoloth is a past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. She is the author of Health Care and the Ethics of Encounter: A Jewish Discussion of Social Justice and co-editor of Notes From a Narrow Ridge: Religion and Bioethics and The Human Embryonic Stem Cell Debate.

In the West

  • Dr. Laila Al-Marayati

    Dr. Laila Al-Marayati is a physician and past president of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Muslim Women’s League, which represents Muslim women and supports the status of women as equal members of society. The league has a speakers bureau and position papers on topic issues such as divorce, honor killing, female genital mutilation, gender equality, inheritance and women’s dress. Members often speak at interfaith public events and at their children’s schools to increase awareness, particularly during Ramadan.

  • Thomas A. Cavanaugh

    Thomas A. Cavanaugh is a philosophy professor at the University of San Francisco and one of nearly 100 scholars nationwide who signed a letter denouncing Obama’s contraception coverage mandate.

  • Cole Durham

    Cole Durham is Emeritus Professor of Law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, where he held the Susa Young Gates University Professorship. He is founding Director of the Law School’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies. From its official organization on January 1, 2000, until May 1, 2016, Professor Durham was Director of the Center, which was organized to provide an intuitional base for long-term initiatives in the field of law and religion throughout the world.

  • Kirtly Parker Jones

    Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones is a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Utah Medical School in Salt Lake City. She teaches the ethics of reproductive medicine.

    Contact: 801-581-3834.
  • Deborah R. McFarlane

    Deborah R. McFarlane is a professor in the department of political science at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. She co-wrote the book The Politics of Fertility Control.

  • Malcolm Potts

    Malcolm Potts is an obstetrician and reproductive scientist and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He has studied oral contraceptives since the 1960s and says the Catholic Church needs to recognize the health benefits – aside from contraception – of the birth control pill.

Related source guides