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Q Ideas for the Common Good: Contraception and the Devolution of Human Rights


Originally published in Q: Ideas for the Common Good.

Revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine once observed that a political crisis could become a clarifying moment. Such moments, he wrote, “sift out the hidden thoughts of man.”

The argument over the availability of contraception and the religious sensibilities of the Catholic Church falls into the crisis category. Over the last several weeks, the “hidden thoughts of man” have been sifted and revealed. What do we see? An intellectual corruption of the meaning of “human rights” so deep and so vast that it threatens the entire social fabric. Unless checked, this sickness promises to decimate the moral foundations of American democracy.

If that sounds like fiery, fund-raising flapdoodle, keep reading.

Under President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, all church-based organizations could be forced to suspend their deeply held religious beliefs in order to advance the president’s vision of social welfare. They will be compelled to pay for health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs—all considered a violation of Catholic teaching. Cardinal Timothy Dolan does not mince words on the issue: “We are talking about an unwarranted, unprecedented radical intrusion into the interior life of integrity of a church’s ability to teach, serve and sanctify its own.”

Is the Catholic Church simply overreacting to the new law? Let’s stipulate that there can be legitimate medical reasons for using contraception which have nothing to do with the desire to avoid pregnancy. Let’s agree that not all women have easy and affordable access to these drugs. (We’ll put aside for now the issue of the excessive reliance on these drugs and their long-term health effects.) The genuine health needs of women are part of the controversy.

Yet let’s also remember that during the contentious health-care debate, Mr. Obama promised to exempt faith-based groups from the law. He agreed that there were well-established protections, based on the First Amendment, which prevented government from forcing religious organizations to subsidize drugs and procedures that violated their religious convictions. Mr. Obama gave this assurance in order to win support for his reform plan—which failed to receive a single Republican vote—and then discarded his promise like a used syringe.

It is true that the new law exempts churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship. But it applies fully to religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals, clinics, charities, colleges, and universities—which number in the thousands and serve communities in every state in the nation. Failure to comply will result in stiff fines: at least $2,000 per employee.

The penalty is small potatoes, though, compared to the principle it establishes: the criminalization of religious views that refuse to conform to government orthodoxy.

It was predictable that the most rabid defenders of the law—the National Organization for Women, MoveOn.org, etc.—would demean its critics by accusing them of “trying to ban contraception” and of “waging a war on women.” What is surprising are the desperate and contorted rationalizations offered by supposedly responsible voices.

Take a figure on the left, that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Speaking recently at the “Women in the World Summit” in New York, Mrs. Clinton lauded the courage of the women and girls around the world dissenting against oppressive rule. She then explained further whom she meant: those women who are “assuming the risks that come with sticking your neck out, whether you are a democracy activist in Burma or a Georgetown law student in the United States.”

Let’s try to take this in. The Secretary of State, America’s chief diplomat, makes no meaningful distinction between Burmese protestors—fighting for their lives and their freedom against a regime guilty of crimes against humanity—and a Georgetown University student who demands that her Jesuit school cover the costs of contraception. Yes, the woman who is suing a university over access to cheap birth control enjoys the same moral stature as that of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic leader who has endured death threats, assaults on her life, and years in prison to defy the murderous Than Shwe. In Mrs. Clinton’s formulation, both types of women are agitating for their democratic rights against soul-less tyrannies.

Allow the moral comparison to linger in the air for a moment, like the smell of sulfur burning in a garbage dump.

Now take a figure on the right, New York Times columnist David Brooks. During a recent exchange on National Public Radio, Mr. Brooks was asked about President Obama’s “accommodation” on contraception. In an attempt to dampen the mounting criticism, the president announced a revision in the law that supposedly requires health insurers to absorb the costs, rather than religious employers. Mr. Brooks admitted that the administration’s ruling was really an accounting gimmick, since employers will still be forced to subsidize the drugs and procedures.

“It’s a subterfuge. They hide the cost of contraception behind a cloud. But nonetheless, that’s what we do in a messy society. It’s not always principled…but we’ve got to deal with a lot of different sorts of people.”

As if that wasn’t enough to take one’s breath away, Mr. Brooks went further. He claimed that the so-called accommodation actually honors the Catholic Church and other religious institutions. “By hiding the cost behind a subterfuge, that shows them some respect and so I think it’s a step in the right direction.”

We are asked to believe, in a kind of Alice-in-Wonderland way, that an intellectually dishonest policy—an attempt to conceal a bald violation of religious liberty—is simply “what we do in a messy society.” With so many “different sorts of people,” it’s just too difficult to preserve religious freedom—not when so many people want someone else to pay for their birth control pills. So, in this case, subterfuge is a sign of “respect.”

How do we explain this line of reasoning? Mr. Brooks prides himself on his dislike of dogma—political or religious. In our era of partisan rancor, there is a lot to be said for this disposition. But one can make an idol of this mood: what Mr. Brooks defends as “intellectual humility” can be a way to avoid making costly moral choices.

Here is where such humility, if it can be called that, eventually leads: to the unfathomable claim that government dissembling and propaganda creates the pathway to civic peace. A warning from C.S. Lewis, in another context, comes to mind: “Nonsense in the intellect draws evil after it.” Some conservatives seem as prone to talk nonsense about human rights as their liberal counterparts.

Consider a final example, this one from the pages of The Economist. The London-based magazine, representative of elite and secular opinion on both sides of the Atlantic, weighed in on the contraception debate in its “Lexington” essay.

To The Economist, there are no fundamental claims at stake, merely “principles.” Advocates of the contraception mandate believe deeply that government should ensure easy and affordable access to birth control. Opponents believe equally firmly in exercising their religious beliefs in the public square. They simply are at odds: “This is a case of two principles colliding…But as to which principle has the higher moral claim, no simple rule provides an answer.”

Where exactly does this “moral claim” to contraception come from? The Magna Carta? We are never told. In an effort to rise above the fray, The Economist indulges in moral equivalence talk as tortured as that of Hillary Clinton.

The British editors at the magazine, ironically, seem unaware that one of the fiercest and most profound debates in the history of the West centered on the rights of religious conscience—a battle waged in the cultural and political life of Great Britain. That struggle, which came to a head in the last half of the seventeenth century, culminated in John Locke’s revolutionary A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689):

“The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force. But true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.”

By “inward persuasion of the mind,” Locke meant our conscience before God. He thus laid the intellectual foundation for religious freedom as a natural, unalienable right—a right involving a profound obligation to the Creator. Government’s role, he said, was to guard this right by keeping out of the affairs of the church. Following Locke, the Founders called religious liberty “the first freedom” of American democracy because they understood that the protection of religious conscience helped secure the other freedoms in our Bill of Rights.

What does this natural, unalienable, constitutional right have to do with the need—or merely the desire—for cheap contraceptives? Absolutely nothing.

A government program to provide contraception—to any woman for any reason—represents a social aspiration. There is no underlying “human right” involved, no Divine endowment essential to human dignity. But as aspirations become more and more confused with fundamental rights, government becomes larger and more intrusive—and more likely to trample those rights underfoot. The mental confusion between rights and aspirations did not begin in the Age of Obama, but it has hit a high-water mark.

We are approaching the kind of crisis moment of which Thomas Paine spoke. By exposing the motives and prejudices of antagonists, such moments become “touchstones of sincerity and hypocrisy.” In this case, hypocrisy and intellectual rot are walking hand in hand. It is a marriage made in hell.

How to keep this fearsome alliance from devouring our political life here on earth is one of our great cultural challenges.

Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City and a senior fellow at The Trinity Forum. He is the author of the forthcoming book The Searchers: A Quest for Faith in the Valley of Doubt.

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