Huffpost Religion
THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Margaret Sullivan Headshot

A Grandmother on Sex, Contraception and Religious Freedom

Posted: Updated:

"Smile ☺ Your Mother Chose Life"

The yellow bumper sticker makes me smile. Not for its indirect meaning but because of my own story. I have always known I was conceived by my missionary parents in love and as the result of a mindful decision that the time was right for them to stop using contraception and have a baby. A choice -- to quote the bumper sticker literally but not its overtone of 'instead of abortion' -- made with premeditation and joy.

For my parents, birth control was integral to a deeply moral and religious worldview of individual responsibility for life that they lived and modeled. Their story, our family's story, serves as a much-needed counterpoint to the current hullabaloo: Denominational institutions and individually led private companies (think Liberty University and Hobby Lobby) demanding the right, in the name of "religious freedom," to impose their anti-contraception beliefs by not covering birth control under employee health plans despite the Obamacare-mandate. Never mind that this keeps their staff-members from exercising their own rights (perhaps also religiously based) to access insurance-covered birth control. Conservative politicians aid and abet them by passing laws limiting access to contraception both directly and by closing women's health clinics (think North Carolina, Virginia and Texas for starters).

Times were hard in 1931, the Depression deep. Before my parents -- people of abiding faith who met at a Student Christian Movement meeting -- were married that June, they traveled to the Margaret Sanger clinic in Chicago for contraceptives, still controversial and not widely used. Much in love, they wanted an active physical life together within marriage. But it was not a responsible time for them to have babies. Dad was a doctoral candidate. Mother had a low-paying job at the YWCA.

By 1933, degree conferred, they were sent to China as Presbyterian missionaries; Dad would teach public health and parasitology in a university. Before going, they wrote a booklet on marriage, sex and birth control for other missionaries. Their blueprint for a faithful marriage was joyful, loving, responsible sex and parenting and, in a wider moral and religious context, on teaching by example, learning from those around them and respecting all people, even those with whom they disagreed.

Unlike many Americans, they had work and an income -- not a lot, but enough. They decided it was time. I arrived the following July. Second Sister, equally planned, arrived two years later. Third Sister -- intended as the first of another pair -- was on the way in 1940 when Mother, Sister and I were evacuated in anticipation of World War II. Our brother is the circumstance -- delayed, much wanted post war child.

Physicality and, as we got older, responsible sex were simply part of unembarrassed family conversation, as much religious and moral upbringing as biology: Body parts had accurate names. Real words (not slang or innuendo) described functions. Sex, for any loving couple, was the ultimate expression of intimacy. Between a man and a woman, (the only kind talked about then, although my parents would welcome the DOMA and Prop 8 decisions if they were alive) it also was endowed with the awesome capacity of creating life. Wait, they told us, ideally for marriage, but always use contraception to avoid unplanned pregnancy.

In 1954, I was engaged to a man who shared my upbringing. My parents gave us Van de Velde's Ideal Marriage (the sex manual before Masters and Johnson and The Joy of Sex). Mother and I went to her gynecologist for me to be fitted with and get a prescription for a diaphragm. Fortunately, we lived in Virginia, not Connecticut where contraception in any form was illegal until Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965.

Nearly 59 years later, we have four children and three young adult grandchildren, all raised with the same moral framework our parents provided us. Our current mantra: we want to be great-grandparents -- but not yet. Meanwhile, safe, responsible sex is the watchword.

Along the way, we learned that contraception can fail -- our kids, we joke, were pre-pill -- and, in the heat of the moment, that sound lessons don't always lead to sound practice. We were fortunate to be healthy, stably married, able to handle the unexpected. Not every one is. When I was carrying our third child, accidental but joyfully anticipated, I was helping in a clinic in Malaya and spoke with a woman my age, bulbous with her ninth pregnancy. She had nearly died giving birth to her eighth child and wanted to make the babies stop coming. But I was prohibited from giving her information on contraception; to do so was illegal there then.

Life has no easy, one-size-fits-all solutions. So I am grateful for Griswold, Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood and Obamacare. My grandmotherly wisdom is that encouraging postponement, fostering accurate, responsible sex education at home and in schools across the country, and ensuring as well as insuring access to a wide range of contraception for everyone who wants it are vital so that unwanted babies are few and the decision to have a safe, legal abortion is rare.

In our plural society, Americans hold differing religious and moral views on these matters. I respect that and others' right to act on theirs and to preach them in churches and elsewhere. Nothing in current law prevents that. No one is required to use contraception or have an abortion.

But I expect others to respect my deeply held beliefs and right to practice and preach mine as well.

That's the rub. In too much current political posturing, the few threaten to force their vision of religious morality on all. And believe they have that right. People who glorify individual effort and demand limiting government intrusion in large aspects of national life would impose laws that allow the government and employers to make intrusive decisions in the most private, deeply personal aspects of our lives for me, my husband, our children and grandchildren. For everyone. Although women are most directly impacted, (closing abortion clinics also limits easy access to the contraception they also provide that would limit abortions) this is not just a women's issue, but also a family and societal one.

At bedrock, these groups and politicians do not respect Americans' multiple religious beliefs. Nor trust us to make responsible, moral decisions for ourselves. And why, seeing the yellow bumper sticker, I smile and cite our family's hardly unique religiously based conviction.