10/22/2012 02:32 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

Faith, Fear, and Family Planning

Listen to the clamor this year from the religious right and you would think that most people of faith reject family planning as a moral wrong and a social evil. Hardly. Public opinion polls have consistently shown that support for the use of contraceptives knows no religious bounds. Most people of faith, like their secular counterparts, believe that women should be able to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. And that is true of practicing Catholics and Protestants alike.

That's why it was refreshing on Monday of this week to see evangelical leaders at the National Press Club trumpeting their support for family planning. On a panel moderated by columnist E.J. Dionne, Richard Cizik, the president of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, unveiled "A Call to Christian Common Ground on Family Planning, and Maternal and Child Health."

Making it clear that contraception is morally laudable in the view of most evangelicals, the group's statement warned against conflating the use of contraception methods with abortion:

The association and the confusion of family planning with abortion has caused intense religious opposition by Christians and others with the result that opposition has extended not just to abortion, but to family planning as a whole. This confused opposition to family planning is an international phenomenon, and has hindered funding and support of desperately needed family planning services both in the United States and around the world.

The statement went on to issue a special call to "pro-life" Christians, urging them to back off their opposition to the funding of organizations that provide both contraception and abortion services. Citing the crucial role contraception plays in preventing abortions, the statement called upon pro-life advocates to "consider how a deeply moral commitment, focusing on the flourishing of all human beings made in God's image, actually ought to lead to support for family planning."

Last Monday's National Press Club event will do little or nothing to change public attitudes, but it may give faith leaders more courage in speaking out publicly about their support for government-supported family planning programs. In the past year, the religious right has dominated the political discourse, making it appear that the broader electorate has taken a sharp turn to the right on contraception. Fundamentally, however, nothing has changed. It's another case of a zealous tail attempting to wag the dog.

In his opening remarks, Cizik readily acknowledged that many religious leaders are reluctant to speak out. He said that many faith leaders regard public support for family planning as a "third rail."

But unless more people of faith -- like Cizic -- dare to speak out publicly, the religious right will continue to gain ground in their efforts to shut down family planning clinics. It may not reflect the thinking of rank-and-file Republicans or the broader faith community, but the U.S. House of Representatives wants to cut all funding for Title X, the federal program that helps to provide low-income women with access to birth control. So do Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, and spurred on by the religious right, several governors and legislatures have slashed state funding for clinics serving low-income women.

Sooner or later, social conservatives may win out against family planning, and if they do, there will be no winners. Women and their families will lose. Maternal health will suffer, and as several panelists made clear, it will lead to more abortions, not fewer. Those religious zealots who argue differently are blinded by their own convictions.

Several of the speakers at the National Press Club, including Marcia Pally, a New York University sociologist, argued that, contrary to all the campaign rhetoric, support for family planning among evangelicals and other religious groups is actually increasing, particularly among those under age 40.

That's good news, but before it's too late, somebody ought to tell the politicians.