Why the Birth Control Compromise is not about “Freedom of Conscience”

From the Wall Street Journal:

Vice President Joe Biden said he is confident the administration will find a way to require almost all health-insurance plans to offer free contraception without forcing Catholic institutions to act against their religious beliefs.

His comments Thursday to a Cincinnati radio station came as the White House tried to defuse a growing controversy over its decision to exempt only a small group of churches and other faith-based institutions from the new health-care rule. Catholic groups and their supporters have complained that hospitals, schools and charities will have to pay for contraception, which the church opposes.

I’ve been hearing a lot about how requiring organizations to offer health insurance that includes birth control is a violation of “freedom of conscience.” That’s the same logic that was used to justify pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control. (I opposed the latter idea because of its hypocrisy: the Religious Right tells women that if they don’t want to be pregnant, they can choose not to have sex. I would counter that if a person doesn’t want to dispense birth control, he or she can choose not to be a pharmacist.) This time, however, the “freedom of conscience” logic does not work at all.

The “controversy” (which is a kind way of saying “the ruckus kicked up by the Religious Right”) is about denying “freedom of conscience” to organizations. Not people. Specifically, not women. Since when did organizations have consciences? The members of their boards of executives might have consciences, and they might agree on something, but they emphatically cannot speak for every member or every employee of their organization.

The loudest voice in the fray currently belongs to the Catholic Church. Cries have gone up that the Church should not be forced to “compromise its principles” by offering women paid birth control as part of their insurance package. But whose principles are these? A majority of Catholic women were using the pill as early as 1970. A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute (which is contested by Catholic bishops) estimates that 98% of “sexually experienced” Catholic women use or have used the pill. If the opposition were really about “freedom of conscience,” you’d expect to find different statistics.

The truth is, this “controversy” is about the exact opposite of “freedom of conscience.” It’s about denying freedom of conscience to religious women. The Church (and the other organizations supporting it) are desperately afraid that if they give women access to birth control, they will break down the doors of CVS to get it. The US Council of Catholic Bishops made the following argument:

“[The Guttmacher stat] is irrelevant, and it is presented in a misleading way,” the group said in a statement. “If a survey found that 98 percent of people had lied, cheated on their taxes, or had sex outside of marriage, would the government claim it can force everyone to do so?”

Except the government isn’t forcing women to take birth control. It’s forcing religious organizations to let women choose whether to take birth control. If the religious organizations in question had faith in their members’ convictions, they would not be worried about paying for something they disagree with because they would trust women not to use it. This so-called controversy is about religious officials taking away women’s freedom of conscience and giving it to the Church. “Freedom of conscience” is code for “the right to enforce conformity amongst religious women.” Actual freedom is about having a choice. The Church and its supporters want to monopolize freedom and choice for themselves while taking those things away from their employees and congregations.

Not to mention where this leaves poor women who aren’t Catholic, but just happen to work at Catholic hospitals or charities because there’s no other work in their area. Forcing people who don’t even profess the same faith as you do to live by your rules is most definitely the opposite of “freedom of conscience.”

If this were really about freedom of conscience, it would be a non-issue. Women whose consciences are not bothered by birth control would be able to practice their faith according to their own relationships with God. Women who accept the Church’s teachings would similarly avoid birth control. This is about religious officials’ fear of losing control, fear that their beliefs don’t match those of their congregations, fear that people will wantonly surge toward sinful abandon if not reined in by financial constraints. It’s authoritarianism cloaked in hypocrisy.

  • D

    I love your posts and I agree with all the arguments you’ve laid out here, but what about their claim that it’s wrong to have Catholics who oppose birth control forced to indirectly pay for it in an insurance plan? I can understand their concern to at least be able to avoid monetarily supporting something they believe is wrong (though I wholeheartedly support birth control and abortion). It may come down to weighing the decision making power that the Catholic church should have over their own universities and churches against the right to have health care for all the non-Catholics they employ there. If that’s the case, I side with the workers.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      Thanks for your comment. My personal view on that issue is that health insurance is part of earned income. It’s not “given” to people as a courtesy. A health insurance package is part of the wages offered when someone takes a job. The Catholic Church can’t stop its members from buying things it doesn’t like with their own money (porn, gambling, etc.). It should equally have no say in what health insurance provides to its members.

      If the Catholic Church doesn’t want people to use birth control, it should sack employees it knows are using birth control. It would be more ideologically consistent than “just pay for it cash and we’ll turn a blind eye.” Yes, this would make the Church look bad, but I think what they are doing is already bad, so they might as well just admit they’re trying to control people.

      • D

        That’s a great point. Health insurance really is part of earned income for those workers. So the Catholic church is not being forced to pay for something they morally object to–they’re being forced to pay workers who provide services at their hospitals and universities and those workers deserve the freedom to use that pay for whatever they want. I think you’re right that their objection is really an attempt to control people.

  • jemand

    Yeah… I have some memory that there were companies once which had “company stores” and would give their workers vouchers that were really only good in the “company stores.” And they would use the vouchers to pay for company provided housing as well.

    Obviously, this practice was open to all manner of abuses and was absolutely horrible to workers, and it is now illegal. But for some very odd reason of historical quirks… companies still get basically receipts of what their employees buy with health insurance coverage. So you have once again the opportunity for gross abuses of privacy and the employer employee relationship, but more concentrated in the region of health coverage.

    Interestingly enough, this is only going to get worse as the health insurance reform seems like it’s more likely to increase pressure for employers to provide health insurance coverage in ways which violate employees privacy and doctor/patient decisions.

  • http://mysteriousobject015.wordpress.com/ mysteriousobject015

    I’m a bit mystified by the claim that I’ve heard in a few places (not just here) that institutions don’t have consciences. While that may be technically true, it’s also quite clear that people don’t want to belong to institutions which do (in their view) unconscionable things. In other words, the “conscience” of an institution is really an aggregate of the consciences of the people belonging to that institution (or at least those who have decision-making power in that institution). If their aggregate conscience has decided that birth control is morally acceptable and should be dispensed to people for free, that’s a collective moral decision which is, nonetheless, open to challenge from others with differing moralities. Those people who are challenging may be using flawed arguments to do so, but it’s within their purview to challenge any institutionalized morality.

    As for the Church’s authoritarianism, that’s certainly the case. The Church hierarchy certainly would endorse the need for laws to constrain people from doing immoral things they would otherwise do were they legal. It doesn’t trust its flock to be sinless or even mostly in conformity with its moral teachings in its everyday behavior. But in this way it’s no different from any lawmaking apparatus. If people were just naturally “moral,” we wouldn’t need laws to coerce people into making certain “moral” decisions (i.e. not cheating on their taxes, not raping people, not driving away after hitting someone with their cars, etc.).

    The real question is, I believe, ultimately a moral one, and therefore a social one. Once enough members of society decide that providing birth control to people is a moral act, they will take actions to institutionalize that morality. It will inevitably be at odds with certain forms of religious morality, and while those religious people have the right to challenge the prevailing morality, those in the majority also have every right to fight back on moral grounds. In other words, the controversy here isn’t about fetishizing institutions–it’s about whether or not birth control is moral. People, religious or otherwise, need to understand that they live in a society with people of often radically different moral outlooks and that they will at times need to accept that their moral worldview will not be 100% reflected in all of the institutions to which they belong or from which they benefit.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      I disagree. I’m deeply suspicious of the philosophical-legal arguments that grant corporations of various kinds qualities that belong to conscious beings. Conscience, “personhood,” etc. are metaphysical ideas that rest on the presumption of consensus amongst decision-makers, to say nothing of consensus between the decision-makers and the rest of the body it claims to speak for. I don’t believe the aggregate conscience ever actually exists, and it certainly can’t in an authoritarian context like the Church. As I understand it, the Catholic people don’t elect their religious leaders. The leaders thus feel no need to take the temperature of their followers and figure out if they all – or mostly – agree. Dissent on birth control amongst bishops would be dealt with by dismissing the troublesome bishop. (We saw an example of this when the doctor who ordered a life-saving abortion for a woman at a Catholic hospital was fired and excommunicated last year.) There’s no mechanism for the aggregate conscience of the actual Catholic corporation (head and body) to make itself known, because a single conscience is always privileged and guarded.

      I think the idea that birth control is a moral issue is an invention and a distraction. Birth control is a self-determination issue. It becomes “moral” only if a group tries to divest women of their rights (which is what’s happening). Birth control is as much a moral issue as the right to breathe air. The fact that oral contraceptives are the crux of the debate (not vasectomies, for instance) reveals some of the underlying motivations. The “morality” in question is really just about keeping women in their place.

      I disagree again about the law. The law exists to safeguard a morality that most people enact automatically. Our prison system would collapse and our government would be overturned if all people were naturally criminal. The law exists to protect the majority, which is moral, from the criminal few.

  • Lynn

    Hmm, seems to me like the women could choose to be part of a Catholic organization that collectively does not support birth control, or they can choose to move along to somewhere that is more in line with their thinking. At-will emplyees, right? I could choose to work for a company that offers the kind of health care plan I want or I can tell them to take a hike and I can go somewhere else, the same way I would do with regards to wages or any other earned employee income. if I am not a valuable enough employee to make those kinds of decisions, well then, I guess that is my problem and perhaps I shouldl work a little harder to become a more valuable employee so I can choose whom I will work for and at what compensation. I really do not think government regulation is an answer to any problem, moral or social. I think personal responsibility is the key. I’m not trying to be contrary, I just see this whole thing, from both sides, as a non-issue if we are going to trade value for value.

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      Theoretically that’s true, but low-income workers aren’t always able to make that choice in real life. “Personal responsibility” doesn’t go very far when you don’t make enough money to educate yourself or move to an area where there are non-Catholic organizations to work for.
      As for government regulation – I would rather have government regulation that keeps people from taking away my options than church regulation which does take away my options.

  • http://mysteriousobject015.wordpress.com/ mysteriousobject015

    Hey – I’m actually not arguing that an institution is a person or a thing — just the opposite. I think to do so commits the fallacy of fetishizing the collective, as Marx pointed out with regards to commodities. What I’m saying is that the fetishization (or not) of an institution isn’t the issue here: morality is. Since an institution is not a thing but a condensation of a set of social relations, it’s the social relations themselves I’m trying to bring into view when I bring up the question of morality. You place self-determination in opposition to morality, when in fact the language of self-determination is heavily loaded with moral dimensions. Self-determination isn’t a self-evident moral good; it is only moral insofar as individual human beings decide it is moral, and, perhaps more importantly, WHEN it is moral. When enough of them do, we begin to achieve a social consensus that it is a good thing for people to determine their own destinies in x or y regard. Those who argue against human self-determination then become the target of *moral* ire, as the Catholic Church has. But because the Church (and the right in general) wishes to usurp for itself the language of morality, its opponents feel that they must argue in other-than-moral terms. This is a fallacy. Why is it not possible to say that people’s (especially women’s) access to contraceptives is in fact a deeply moral issue?

    As for the links between morality/immorality and law/criminality, I think that would require a lot more thought than I can muster at the moment. :-) Suffice to say, for now, that very “moral” people also do criminal things, that it’s not an either/or, and that there is no person for whom the law is unnecessary or irrelevant as a guide to action. To a certain extent the law shapes our considerations of what is moral, but in another sense it doesn’t. We exist in excess of the law. On the other hand, a certain regime of law is only intuitive (i.e. “enacted automatically”) to the extent that we have been socialized in a culture where those kinds of laws make intuitive sense. I’m sure all human beings have some deep underlying shared sense of morality, but its implementations in actual life are so contingent upon culture, history, etc. that for practical purposes the legal/moral regime in which we are raised has significant power over shaping our moral subjectivity. Even when we challenge these legal/moral regimes, we often do so in their own terms. Nevertheless, they can still get revolutionized “from within,” so to speak, as the sexual revolution and the feminist revolution have shown. But the dialectic continues…

    • http://nonprophetmessage.wordpress.com Sierra

      We’ll continue this over tea sometime when I’m not sick. ;)

      I don’t 100% buy the social consensus model for self-determination. I think social consensus is only truly possible under the condition of the majority possessing self-determination. In less egalitarian situations, self-determination is what the elite preserve for themselves while the less fortunate participate in the “consensus” only because the other option is suicide.

      I suppose what I meant by “moral issue” was more “controversial issue.” I do accept that I oppose the bishops here for moral reasons, but I don’t accept the legitimacy of the controversy.

      I’m sure we’ll get to hash out the law thing in class one of these weeks, too. ;)


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