WASHINGTON -- Sister Agnes Marie, 74, stood outside the Supreme Court Wednesday morning in a sea of protesters holding up signs about birth control and explained why she had come 600 miles to show her opposition to it.
"I've never done anything like this before," said the Franciscan nun, who had just taken a bus to D.C. from South Bend, Indiana, with about 40 other nuns to support the Little Sisters of the Poor during their Supreme Court case.
The case, Zubik v. Burwell, challenges the provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to cover birth control for their female employees or opt out if they have a religious objection. The Little Sisters of the Poor, along with several other groups of religious conservatives, morally object to birth control because they believe it is the same as abortion. They argue that the law's accommodation for religious groups, which asks the employer to fill out a form stating their objection, does not suffice to protect their religious freedom.
Sister Agnes Marie shares that belief. She works at a Catholic maternity home in Indiana called Hannah's House, where she helps women cope with their unplanned pregnancies and coaches them on how to use natural planning methods that do not involve birth control or condoms. She believes all birth control, even the daily pill women take to avoid pregnancy, is abortion.
"It's not birth control at all, it's an abortifacient," the nun said. "It's an abortion. That's all it's doing -- it's leading up to aborting after there's conception. It's going to abort whatever happens."
The science is clear on birth control: it works by preventing the sperm from fertilizing the egg. Even emergency contraception, which women can take for up to 72 hours after sex to prevent pregnancy, works before fertilization happens and therefore is not the same as abortion.
But the anti-abortion group that is legally supporting the nuns has based its arguments on findings from medical groups that routinely ignore science. Americans United for Life filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Association of American Physicians & Surgeons claiming that life begins at fertilization and that some forms of contraception work by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. AAPS, which has just 3,000 members and holds many views that go counter to the medical establishment, has also argued in a medical journal in 2007 that HIV does not cause AIDS and has said that it is "evil" for physicians to participate in Medicare and Medicaid.
If the Supreme Court sides with religious groups against the contraception coverage rule in the health care law, it will set the precedent that a religious belief, even if it is not medically or scientifically sound, can overrule public health policy. Women's rights groups argue that employers should not be able to dictate women's health care coverage because of a religious belief that is not based in fact.
"No one should have to ask their boss for permission to get the health care they need. Period," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "We hope that the Supreme Court will agree with that simple statement."
Sister Agnes Marie walked away from the women's rights protesters at the Supreme Court Wednesday morning shaking her head. She said the case applies to a Native American man who wants to smoke an illegal drug as part of a religious ritual as much as it applies to women's birth control coverage.
"I have to be professional, but I wanted to turn around and say, you guys didn't do your homework," she said. "This isn't about abortion and contraception. It's about the First Amendment and freedom of religion."