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I Was a Virgin on Birth Control

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Mainstream or religious, conservative or liberal media agree: The recent birth control brouhaha -- should the HHS mandate faith-affiliated hospitals and schools to have contraceptives covered by their health insurance providers? -- is a pitched battle between religious liberty and reproductive rights. Professionally, as a religion reporter weary of oversimplified culture wars, and personally, as someone who took birth control pills long before becoming sexually active, I feel disappointed by most of the reporting so far.

On the all-male panel of religious leaders who testified before House Oversight Committee on this topic last month, Roman Catholic Bishop William Lori delivered a "Parable of the Kosher Deli," equating birth control pills with ham sandwiches. "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," a fake news show, mined this for some laughs, but where was the real news coverage pointing out that one never needed a BLT the way that many women need BC? It fell to the Jewish media to offer this obvious rebuttal, while also noting that unlike including pork products on your menu, including contraceptive coverage on your insurance doesn't render the whole institution unkosher.

Then Rush Limbaugh came along and hijacked the debate entirely, calling Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for testifying on behalf of women who need access to birth control. Fluke's defenders prompted an advertiser exodus from Limbaugh's show and an eventual apology, but the editorial question remained: religious liberty or reproductive rights? Yet, as Fluke tried to explain in her opening statement, both frames miss the big picture: Women take the pill to address myriad health issues, from ovarian cancer, menstrual problems, hormone imbalances and fertility treatments to cystic acne, et al.

This is the angle I've been waiting in vain for religious and mainstream journalists to acknowledge and investigate. As a teenager, I had debilitating menstrual cycles, but the perceived stigma of going on the pill deterred me from getting the help I needed. I finally started taking it in college, as a virgin with no foreseeable pregnancy panic, buoyed by all other the young women around me who were taking it for a variety of reasons. (Plus, it was cheap at the student health center, and I didn't have to worry that my parents would find out and get the wrong idea.)

Since then, my mother and sister have also taken the pill on medical grounds, as have dozens of our relatives and friends. We're talking about a well-established legal medication routinely prescribed for a range of symptoms and sicknesses -- but the media spotlight on non-medical opinions from the likes of Limbaugh and Lori, rather than doctors and patients, make it sound more like a Viagra and RU-486 drug cocktail.

So how about some coverage of where these outraged clergy and institutions stand on using contraception in all these medical cases? And even if they technically allow it, does that translate to allowing their health insurance policies to include it? Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a conservative commentator who has slammed media "misrepresentation" of the HHS mandate at GetReligion, shrugged me off with "presumably" when I brought up this angle. Needless to say, "presumably" isn't good enough in journalism, especially when the story concerns fundamental questions about freedom and morality.

And logically, even when clergy approve of contraceptives for unrelated medical reasons, how would they have their institutions apply these directives? Should women who work at Catholic hospitals and schools get a doctor's note for their bosses before requesting insurance reimbursement for the birth control pill? Would ovarian cysts and infertility make the cut, but acne and bad cramps be more along the lines of God's will? And what if religious authorities and their hospitals disagree on these theories in practice, as they have in cases of abortion to save a woman's life?

When reporting on this polarizing issue, journalists should note the range of reasons that women seek affordable and accessible contraception, and ask how their clergy and institutions view these circumstances. Furthermore, when quoting people of faith who argue the HHS mandate violates America's constitutional guarantee for religious liberty, journalists could follow up with some context about freedom's limits. It's not hard to come up with relevant examples: polygamy is illegal; Jehovah's Witnesses may not deny their children blood transfusions; Muslim cab drivers aren't free to reject passengers carrying alcohol.

In the meantime, as an immediate improvement to the coverage, I propose we need a new word for birth control to clarify whether we're talking about contraception, sterilization, abortifacients or any medical intervention that also prevents pregnancy. How about the Patriot Pill?

This article first ran at USC's Trans/Missions Scoops blog.

Nicole Neroulias is an award-winning religion reporter and Seattle-based correspondent for Reuters. A graduate of Cornell University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, she has previously written for the New York Times, Religion News Service and other media outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @BeliefBeat.