Whose Religious Liberty? What Value Pluralism? What Attention Span?
Caveat: I know that this is off-message and we’re all supposed to be fighting over whether or not Paul Ryan is a lunatic or a fiscal hawk and so on and so forth. I know we’re supposed to be digging through his record to discover shiny little hypocrisy baubles or courage trinkets. I know, I know, I know, but I write about government’s size and spending often enough already. I have nothing witty or pithy to say about Rep. Ryan. Please consider this an entremet.
The Catholic Church’s “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign was supposed to prompt more discussion of contraception’s inclusion in all employer-provided health care plans. This would have been great, given that the first round of debate was disappointing (this winter/spring). I’d hoped that the Church’s attempt to resuscitate the issue would get it started once more…but unfortunately, the public scarcely noticed, distracted as it was by the status of Willard Mitt Romney’s tax returns, the Olympics, the League’s recent symposia, and so on and so forth. But no—the discussion remained stultified, since many sought to reduce the issue to a very limited understanding of organizational religious liberty. To hear them talk, the whole argument over contraception can be settled by simply referring to religious organizations’ right to reduce their insurance coverage to match their theological convictions. This narrow emphasis has distorted the debate in strange and confusing ways.
Surely we can do better. Value pluralism is central to the American tradition. Sometimes (often?) we sacrifice public health in order to maintain greater individual liberty. Sometimes (again…often?) we privilege individual prosperity over social equality. Americans know (knew?)how to reflect on the tension between various political goods. This balanced approach has been sorely missing from recent contraception debates. Why have the other relevant public goods gone missing?
Why, for example, has there been so little discussion paid to individual religious liberty? Employers that tailor their health insurance to their religious convictions impose formal and informal constraints upon employees of other faiths. What’s more, many Catholics also take advantage of individual religious liberty to use contraception. Though some Catholic leaders claim to be defending aggrieved Catholics everywhere from government interference, there’s significant evidence that no such consensus exists. The overwhelming majority of Catholic women use birth control. Catholics are split on the new HHS rules. Why hasn’t any of this gotten much attention?
Or what about equality and public health? Contraception has helped hundreds of millions of Americans to build a family they can materially support. Increased access to birth control yields substantial increases in economic mobility for women and their families. Women with easy access to contraception have more education, more professional success, stronger marriages, safer pregnancies, and healthier children. Women are more likely than men to invest their income in their families. Professionally successful mothers drive their families’ economic and social mobility.
That’s why insurance companies have agreed to foot the bill for contraception as part of the HHS compromise proposal—they know that family planning saves them money in the long run. Healthier women and families are better for their bottom line. Isn’t an efficient health care system something worth taking into account?
Opponents of the new rules insist that these other public goods are of no consequence compared with religious organizations’ ability to determine the scope of their own health insurance coverage. This means that our debates don’t just miss the boat—they sail past the harbor. And that’s a shame, since individual liberty, social mobility, economic opportunity, gender equality, public health, strong families and marriages, national prosperity, and an efficient health care system are precisely the sorts of goods we should consider when determining the scope of health care coverage.
Let’s be fair. None of these considerations is singularly conclusive. That would mirror the mistake of those who are prioritize organizational religious liberty above all else. But surely these goods are relevant. Surely they don’t simply evaporate if we insist that organizational religious liberty is crucially important. What if reduced contraception coverage causes an additional 10,000 new children born into poverty next year? What if it leads to increases in the pay gap between men and women?
I’ma say it again: None of the foregoing means that organizational religious liberty is irrelevant. It just means that there are other, enormously important considerations that opponents to the new rules haven’t taken seriously. And that means that our public discussions have fallen far short of American standards for fair, comprehensive debates—which is surely a public good we can all support.
 Well, almost nothing. I DO think that all posts treating Rep. Ryan’s views on gay marriage should include the following: “Hey! If Paul Ryan married Ron Paul and took his last name, he’d be named ‘Paul Paul!’”
Conor P. Williams is a failed Catholic and a failed agnostic. Now he reads too much Niebuhr and wills to believe. Williams writes and teaches in Washington, D.C. More: Facebook, Twitter, and at http://www.conorpwilliams.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.