.- Thousands of women across the country are leading grassroots efforts to make their voices heard in opposition to the federal contraception and sterilization mandate.
The Women Speak for Themselves movement is driven by “things that women are deciding to do on their own,” said Meg McDonnell, who has been assisting the group from early in its existence.
McDonnell told CNA on Sept. 20 that the movement has received “hundreds of e-mails” about women’s efforts to defend religious freedom, including prayer campaigns, local rallies, blog posts, discussions with elected representatives, voter registration drives, billboards and letters to the editor.
The movement began in February, when George Mason law professor Helen Alvaré and former Thomas More Law Center counsel Kim Daniels wrote a letter responding to the controversial federal mandate that requires employers to offer free contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs in their health care plans, regardless of their religious and moral objections.
The open letter asked President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Kathleen Sebelius and members of Congress not to claim to speak for all women in promoting the mandate.
It criticized those who try to “shout down anyone who disagrees” with them by invoking “women’s health,” while ignoring the negative physical and social effects of contraception for women.
“No one speaks for all women on these issues,” the letter said. “Those who purport to do so are simply attempting to deflect attention from the serious religious liberty issues currently at stake.”
Within weeks, the letter was signed by thousands of women of various religious and political backgrounds who oppose the mandate. The letter is currently approaching 34,000 signatures.
What started as a simple letter has become a movement, with the women on the list working to “keep it active,” McDonnell explained. “It’s really them that keep it going.”
As more women signed the letter, she said, they consistently wrote to Alvaré about the issues they were facing and the efforts they were leading in their local communities.
Relief at having an opportunity to speak out and the ability to stand up for their beliefs was a “common theme,” she explained.
McDonnell attributes the growth of the movement over the last seven months largely to the “woman to woman contact” and the “continual discussion” that is being generated, allowing the conversation to reach a wider audience.
Decades after legalized abortion swept through America, she said, “a lot of women have experienced the negative effects” of the sexual revolution. Seeing that these ideas did not lead to happiness, they now want to “set a better path for younger women.”
The women in the movement hold differing views on contraception, she noted.
“But they stand with us on the religious freedom issue,” she said. “And that’s the key point.”
The group’s website, www.womenspeakforthemselves.com, includes talking points for discussions on the mandate and religious freedom, exploring the “war on women” rhetoric, and whether free contraception is really the best means of promoting women’s equality.
These talking points help to “clarify the dialogue,” McDonnell explained.
Contrary to some reports, she said, opponents of the mandate are “not trying to say that contraception should be outlawed.” Rather, they are advocating a return to policies that allow women to purchase birth control if they choose to do so, while permitting religious groups to follow their moral convictions.
The movement has also released an online video highlighting the efforts of women to protect religious liberty and promote “a more thoughtful, more complete vision of women’s freedom.”
In addition, a new book called “Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak For Themselves” (Our Sunday Visit, $16.95) has been published. The book, which is edited by Alvaré, features women speaking “in their own voices” about the issues they face in their careers, as moms and in their faith lives. It also features the stories of how they came to embrace Church teaching in their own lives.
McDonnell believes that women will continue to make use of outlets that allow them to speak their opinion in the public square.
Religious freedom is an important ongoing issue that is “not solely related just to this mandate,” she explained.
“Women are smart,” she said. “They’re moms, they’re wives, they’re working in the professional world. They realize that there are greater things ahead for women.”