So much has been written about the HHS rule and its “compromise” that I hardly think I have much to add to the conversation. Nevertheless, there are a few points that I think have been missing form the debate, even in Catholic circles. Allow me to take a brief moment to give a relatively disconnected trio of issues that just may help to spark some more conversation.
1. Religious Liberty is an Individual Freedom.
It seems to me that the focus of the national Catholic conversation has been on the Obama administration’s violation of the freedom of religion by forcing Catholic institutions such as hospitals and universities to provide employees with contraceptives and sterilizations, a practice that is in clear contradiction to the teachings of our faith. While this is certainly deplorable and the most overt violation of the First Amendment, what has been relatively missing from the dialog is that religious liberty is not merely a liberty granted to religious organizations. First and foremost, religious liberty is an individual liberty. Each and every citizen of our nation is guaranteed under the Constitution the freedom to practice one’s religion both publicly and privately and to not be coerced into violating our consciences by acting in a way contradictory to the tenants of one’s faith.
Thus, the HHS rule is not simply a violation against specifically religious organizations. It is also a violation of the religious liberty of the individual business owner, Catholic or otherwise. As a Catholic, the owner of a private business cannot, under the Constitution, be compelled by the government to pay for “medical” services that violate his or her faith, including contraceptives and sterilizations. This applies not only to those companies that have a religious mission, such as EWTN or the Knights of Columbus, but also to the owner of a chain of restaurants, a manufacturing form, or an publishing company. Further, it also applies to the faithful Catholic owner of a medical insurance company. Forcing the insurance company to provide coverage for these services despite religious beliefs, is a clear violation of the protection guaranteed under the First Amendment.
My fear is simple. If the conversation focusses exclusively on those organizations for which Bishops have direct involvement, we may very well see further “compromise” between the Obama administration and the USCCB, but tens of thousands of other Catholic business owners will be lost in the shuffle. In fact, I will go so far as to say that even if the HHS does a complete 180 on the current issue, i.e. incorporating Catholic hospitals and universities in the exemption clause without the bogus compromise that forces the insurance companies to cover the costs and services … even then, the fight is not over. Because even then there will be thousands of businesses who are not included in the exemption clause because business activities have no specifically religious purpose. Yet these owners too have the right to practice their religion, and hence should not and cannot be compelled to act in a way contrary to their faith.
That being said, there is admittedly a certain advantage in focussing on overtly Catholic organizations like hospitals and universities. First, they are the most obvious cases of government intrusion in the religious sphere. Second, they have high profile leaders, i.e. the episcopacy, that will be forced to take a stand. Yet still, we should not for a minute think that the battle ends with these organizations. Each and every one of us is entitled to religious liberty as an American citizen, and forcing a Catholic (or other religious) business owners to pay for plans that include contraception and sterilization is very much a violation of this liberty. The problem is compounded, of course, if the business is a medical insurance company.
2. There is a Silver Lining.
The felix culpa effect never ceases to amaze me. God can bring good out of the most heinous evils, the case and point being the crucifixion. The silver lining to the current HHS tragedy is the unified effort of the Catholic Episcopacy. While the thought that the Obama administration feels that it can abuse its power in this manner terrifies me, the response by the Bishops has given me great cause for joy. When the Bishop’s letter was read from the pulpit two weeks ago, the congregation applauded. It is a powerful moment for the Church.
Our Church, after all, thrives on persecution. It is precisely in the midst of being “kept down” that we can rise up against tyranny. Such is the lesson of the Cross. There is a quote from 2010 that has been circulating recently, in which Cardinal George of Chicago says, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Whether or not the Cardinal is prophetic remains to be seen, but such an “exaggeration” may not be so exaggerated after all.
In light of this, I would encourage those whose Bishop was one of the hundreds that wrote a letter and had it read to send a note of gratitude. Yes, it was a coordinated effort, but it was the coordination that made it so powerful and effective. While Friday’s “compromise” is manipulative and nothing really close to a compromise, it seems clear that even this minimal response would not have happened had it not been for the organized outcry.
3. “Health Care” is Being Redefined.
My final point has been mentioned by several others, but it warrants reiteration. There is a not-so-subtle redefinition of “health care” in this whole debate. There is a certain amount of irony that under the president’s health care bill and the accompanying HHS ruling, I will not be able to receive Tylenol or toothpaste for free, but women will be able to receive birth control and abortifacients for free. Tylenol is a drug that actually tries to cure something that is “wrong” with the body, and toothpaste is authentically “preventative” in terms of dental health problems. Yet birth control and abortifacients have little to do with the health of the body. In fact, they are often used for reproductive systems that are otherwise heathy. They are designed to take a perfectly healthy and well-functioning bodily system and stop it from functioning how it should. Since when did fertility and pregnancy become a disease? Since when is birth control more “preventative” than toothpaste and abortifacients more of a “cure” than Tylenol.
Whether we agree or disagree on the morality of birth control is not the relevant question here, nor is whether or not we agree or disagree on the “right” of a woman to take these drugs. The Catholic Church has always been clear on this, but it seems to me that there is something else at issue here. Even for those who condone the consumption of these drug, it is a rather large leap to insist that someone else pays for it.
Let me give an analogy. I believe firmly in the right to bear arms. However, I do not believe the the government should provide a gun to every citizen who wants one. Moreover, I don’t believe that my business owner should be forced to provide each of its employees with a gun. Yet this is precisely what is happening with the HHS rule. Even if an individual thinks they should have the right to use oral contraceptives, how does that translate to insisting that the government forcing employers and insurance companies to pay for it? The only answer is to misclassify the contraceptives as “health care.”
I have two clarifications before I sign off, mostly to ensure that I am not misunderstood. First, I understand quite clearly that oral contraceptives are occasionally prescribed for reasons not having to do with birth control. This is emphatically not what I am talking about, and such an issue requires a separate conversation. For my own part, I am of the firm belief that non-contraceptive methods such as NaPro technology have had far more positive results at a cost that is a fraction of many of the contraceptive techniques in dealing with serious medical issues. Yet again, this is another topic for another time, and is not my intent here. However, the media has successfully and unfortunately recast the debate in this light, causing a decent amount of public confusion over the issue. (In a way it reminds me of a person who believes in abortion on demand up until the cutting of the umbilical cord who insists of focussing the debate on the “hard” cases of rape and incest. In the HHS debate we have people who believe that the government can force employers to cover contraceptive for every purpose but insist of focussing just on those cases where they are not being prescribed for contraceptive purposes. It is both misleading and disingenuous.)
Second, I am in no way claiming that an individual does have the right to use contraceptives (for reasons of birth control), less so abortifacients. For my own part, given the objective immorality of such acts, such a “right” would be in direct contradiction of the natural law in which we were created. My point was only that even if one believes in the right to birth control, it still doesn’t mean that employers or insurance companies should be forced to provide it anymore than they should be forced to provide their employees with firearms.
The main point is simple: birth control is not health care because fertility is not a disease.