Perhaps the lowest point so far in the campaign against new federal rules requiring employers to provide contraception, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilization was a mid-February congressional hearing on the issue. 

The morning panel of those testifying against the health regulations were, without exception, men (including Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., head of the U.S. bishops’ religious liberty commission). 

It mattered little that they are absolutely right that the problem with the regulations is that they entail the government attempting to force employers, insurers and individuals to violate their consciences. 

What it looked like to supporters of the regulations — who have framed the issue in the context of women’s health — is exactly what they most fear — a bunch of older men in clerical garb demanding that their outdated religious beliefs be imposed on every American woman. (It matters little, too, at least for the purpose of public perception and late-night comedians’ acts, that the imposition being initiated here is the federal government’s.) 

“What I want to know is, where are the women?” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) asked the panel’s chairman before walking out of the morning session.

Rep. Maloney’s question assumes that the vast majority of women certainly would support the administration’s mandate to employers, insurers and individuals. 

But critics of the mandate should be asking, too: Where are the women? Why aren’t we making sure that the voices of the many intelligent, articulate, successful women who object to the mandate are being heard? 

That’s what has led Helen M. Alvaré, a law professor at George Mason University and former spokeswoman on life issues for the U.S. bishops’ conference, to launch a letter-signing campaign and a website called womenspeakforthemselves.com. Thousands of women, from stay-at-home mothers, to teachers, to small business owners, to health care administrators, have signed the online petition to the president and lawmakers to “allow religious institutions and individuals to continue to witness to their faiths in all their fullness.” 

“We are women,” the letter says, “who support the competing voice offered by Catholic institutions on matters of sex, marriage and family life.” 

“Those currently invoking ‘women’s health’ in an attempt to shout down anyone who disagrees with forcing religious institutions or individuals to violate deeply held beliefs are more than a little mistaken, and more than a little dishonest. Even setting aside their simplistic equation of ‘costless’ birth control with ‘equality,’ note that they have never responded to the large body of scholarly research indicating that many forms of contraception have serious side effects, or that some forms act at some times to destroy embryos, or that government contraceptive programs inevitably change the sex, dating and marriage markets in ways that lead to more empty sex, more nonmarital births and more abortions. 

“It is women who suffer disproportionately when these things happen,” the petition says. “Each of us, Catholic or not, is proud to stand with the Catholic Church and its rich, life-affirming teachings on sex, marriage and family life.” 

It is voices like these that will shatter cultural stereotypes and succeed in opening hearts — especially in newsrooms, Congress and the White House — to taking a stand in defense of conscience freedom for all Americans.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.