18 March 2012

Competing Rights: Religious Liberty & Free Contraception


Recently, I had a conversation with two guys at work about the HHS mandate which would, by force of federal law, require employers to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortifacient drugs in their employees' insurance plans.  These things, the Catholic Church has always taught, are grave sins.  It would be gravely sinful for any Catholic to formally cooperate with their use, which would include, as the HHS mandates, paying for them.  The Catholic who knows Church teaching in this regard, yet abides by the mandate, places his soul in peril.  

I asked my co-workers to put their argument in a nutshell.  It was: "Catholics should not be able to force their religion on the rest of society."  In other words, the government has decided what would be a good health-care plan for everybody; and most of society is fine with it.  Catholics should not be able to throw a monkey-wrench into the whole system because of their eccentric and archaic beliefs...that the rest of society does not share.  On the face of it, I can sympathize.  For instance, there are some religions that eschew all kinds of medical intervention.  Their adherents have been in court for depriving their children access to basic medical care.  Perhaps they will object on religious grounds to paying for the medical care of their employees.  Should these religious people be allowed to throw a monkey-wrench into the whole system?  No; they shouldn't.   

The whole matter centers on freedom of religion and how far it goes.  The First Amendment reads: 
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.     
"Congress shall make no law...prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]."  Of course there are limits to this.  I'm no lawyer, but it seems obvious to me that the First Amendment does not protect your freedom to practice a religion that infringes on the rights of others.  For instance, per the example I cited earlier, parents' freedom of religion does not supersede a child's right to available medical care.  The question is, are Catholics, as my co-workers contend, infringing on the rights of others by refusing to comply with the HHS mandate?    

Women already have the right to contraception.  They are free to spend their money on it or find someone else to do so.  Catholics are in no way infringing on this right.  The right that Catholics are said to be infringing upon, is the right to free contraception--the right to have others be forced to pay for one's contraception.  Let's examine this so-called right.  On what is it based?  It's not based on what is medically necessary.  Contraception is not aimed at a medical problem.  Pregnancy is not an illness.  On the contrary, it is a healthy development.  If we recognize rights beyond necessary medical care, there are a great number of things that fall under this category that, unlike contraception, actually contribute to individual health.  Why not a right to free mattresses so we can get quality rest?  Why not a right to free gym memberships so we can have access to exercise equipment?  Why not a right to free diet pills and Weigh Watchers memberships for the obese?  Rationally, what reason is there for these things to be left to the responsibility of the individual citizen if contraception isn't?  

It's not based on what is fair.  Contraceptives are not necessary for health.  They are the tools of a lifestyle choice.  Women are free to embark on whatever sexual lifestyle they choose, but is it fair for their lifestyle choices to infringe upon the rights of others by making them pay for it?  If so, then on what rational grounds, should others not be required to pay for the gas in our cars, the heat in our homes, the clothes on our backs, and everything else that is more basic and necessary than contraception for any lifestyle choice?  

It's not based on the Constitution.  There is a right to bear arms, a right to free speech, a right to freedom of the press, a right against unreasonable searches and seizures, etc.--but not a right to free contraception.  

There is in the Constitution, however, a right to the free exercise of religion.  But it must be noted, that before we even bring Catholicism, the First Amendment, and freedom of religion into the picture, the right to free contraception breaks down.  It's not medically necessary; it's not constitutional; and it's not fair.  In the language of my co-workers' argument: women should not be able to force their lifestyle choices on the rest of society.  Once add the religious liberty element--the fact that the supposed right to free contraception infringes upon rights of Catholics to freely exercise their religion--and it's doubly undone.  Contrary to my co-workers' argument, Catholics aren't imposing their religion on anybody.  Catholics simply want to be left alone to practice their religion.  It is the government which is imposing itself on Catholics by demanding that Catholic employers "formally cooperate" with what they regard to be evil by buying contraception for their employees.  

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