Monday, February 13, 2012

Contraception Contradictions

The ongoing spat between the Obama administration and Republicans over whether (the insurance companies providing) Catholic Church-run organizations' health insurance plans should pay for contraception is largely partisan--it's really only because Obama is pushing it that Republicans are going to the mat to fight access birth control (I also can't help but wonder if Democrats would have let it slide if Obama had quietly taken the Church's side). But outside of the Washington snake pit there are people who sincerely believe the Republican argument--perhaps it's more correct to say the Republicans take their side insincerely--so it's worth unpacking what's really being argued here. At heart this is another proxy battle in the conflict between liberal and conservative views of liberty.

In an absolute sense, having the requiring Catholic organizations to provide services the Church finds morally abhorrent is an infingement on their right. As a private religious organization they should, in theory, be free to provide or withhold services to whomever they want without interference. No citizen or group wants "the government" to dictate what they should be doing.

But this kind of situation does not occur in a vacuum. For one thing, and this must needs be stressed, contraception is a settled issue for the majority of Americans, and Catholics. The only people really bothered by it are evangelical Christians and Catholic clergy, comprised 100% of "celibate" men. As has been pointed out already, if the religious organization in question were enforcing Sharia law or excluding black people from coverage, many would be singing a different tune.

Yet this is not merely a popularity contest; there is actually a principled reason for overriding this "absolute" liberty that is just as much concerned with freedom. The libertarian perspective is generally, 'keep the (federal) government out, and let whatever happens happen, because private actors should be free to do what they want.' But the federal government is not the only powerful actor at work here. State and local governments, corporations, and organizations like the Catholic Church, wield huge influence over our lives. The example of "excluding black people" isn't a hypothetical; it was the reality in huge swaths of this country up until the 1960s, and it took federal legislation to end it, legislation which Congress's most visible libertarians, the Pauls Ron and Rand, have infamously criticized for its federal intrusion in the private sphere. When it comes to the contraception issue, the Catholic Church owns around 12% of hospitals in the United States, and is acquiring more all the time. If we are going to allow giants, they need to be mindful of who their out-sized feet are stepping on.

It all comes down to first principles. If you start with the premise that an active government is a bad thing by definition, then even if you believe in a woman's access to contraception, or the equality of black people, the fact that those rights are denied in huge parts of the country by private or local actors is regrettable but ultimately acceptable. If your "highest value" (to use and subvert a little Randian terminology) is actual liberty for as many people as possible, then you care about the size of government only insofar as it protects the rights of others, from others.

I think the conservative/libertarian critique of over-sized government has its place, especially in regards our current deficit situation. And using the government to restrict the rights of one group to ensure the rights of another is in its way messy and contradictory. But such is life. If you care about personal liberty, then you need to care if your system of ethics and the policies it implies are actually making people more free. From a personal liberty standpoint, it doesn't make any sense for a handful of people who will never have to worry about birth control yet can still find reason to be incensed with Griswold, to dictate to 50% of their employees what to do with their bodies. A ≠ B.

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