Whether or not artificial birth control is moral or right, the federal government should not require morally-concerned employers to pay for it.
The Students for Human Life Club’s “Save the Humans Week” on campus this week shows the nationwide division over health care rights. Recently, this division came to a head when several businesses began testifying to the Supreme Court that the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) violates their freedom of conscience by forcing them to pay for their employees’ birth control. The disputed “contraceptive” mandate requires employers to pay for potential abortifacients, such as Plan B, which the employers claim kill a human being.
The government has the duty to force some moral actions upon individuals. For example, the government has the duty to force citizens to not murder and to abide by contracts.
On the other hand, the government has the duty to not enforce other moral obligations. It may be morally wrong for a wealthy citizen to waste money on overly expensive cufflinks rather than to give to charity, but the government ought not force the citizen to allocate his resources virtuously. We instinctively understand that there’s something unjust about the government getting overly involved with citizens’ moral choices.
The question at hand with regards to the current Supreme Court case, therefore, is whether the government should legislate a conception of health care. The primary question is not whether Plan B counts as health care in reality, but whether the government should engrave that moral belief into the legal code. In short, the actual moral status of birth control may be irrelevant to whether the government should denominate it as a part of health care.
We must decide what sort of moral norms, like murder, the government can enforce and what sort of norms, like charity, it cannot enforce.
Drawing an analogy between religious freedom and what we might dub “health care freedom” sheds light on how the government should constrain itself with regards to health care. Religion tells individuals what is good for their souls. Healthcare tells individuals what is good for their bodies. Both are highly controversial belief systems. Faiths disagree about the good one’s soul. Those concerned with health care (read, everyone) do not even agree about what counts as the individual’s body, which is being cared for. Some claim that the unborn fetus is a distinct person with human rights. Others say it is a part of the woman’s body to be dealt with as the woman pleases.
Continuing the analogy, the degree to which America disagrees about health care exceeds the degree to which it disagrees about religion. Seventy six percent of Americans are Christian. Only 42 percent of Americans believe abortion is morally acceptable, and 49 percent believe it is wrong. Thus, we may reasonably say that aspects of health care are like religion in how the government should handle them since it makes controversial claims about the good of the person.
So, how does the government deal with competing religious conceptions of the good? If we answer this, we will see how the government should deal with health care. The answer: The government does not deal with competing religious conceptions of the good. More precisely, the government does not legislate whose religion is right. It separates church and state.
The conclusion: In controversial matters, such as birth control, the government should not legislate about whose conception of the good is right.
But what is the good in the government stepping away from controversial matters? Shouldn’t it help resolve these disputes? A mere glance at the nature of the government makes the answer impressively clear. The government is nothing but a glorified hybrid of bureaucracy and gunpowder.
First, government legislation cannot convince half of the U.S. population it is wrong about health care. Legislation only contributes to bitterness, politicization and dishonesty. The 40 years following Roe v. Wade demonstrate how ineffective the government is at shaping public opinion on controversial matters.
Second, even if the government did strong-arm the whole public into agreeing that Plan B was healthcare, we would have to ask ourselves whether it was worth it for the public to change its conviction. Did the government choose the right conviction? Maybe. Maybe not. We could have been a lot more certain about that matter, however, if the decision was left entirely to the people and the gradual, voluntary evolution of understanding rather than a few highly politicized votes.
The birth control debate is a legitimate dispute. Presumably, both sides have some valuable truth to share with the other. Thus, society has an interest in preserving civil, nonpartisan dialogue until the issue is resolved. Getting the government involved is the best way to mess that up.
If America takes the questions of human life and health care seriously, it should hope that the Supreme Court grants conscientious exemptions so as to step back the government overreach in Obamacare’s “contraceptive” mandate.
Elliot Polsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org