The political brouhaha over a government mandate for coverage of contraception continues. On Friday, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops rejected President Obama’s compromise proposal, arguing that pregnancy is not a disease and that those with moral or religious objections to various forms of birth control should not be compelled to sacrifice their principles.
The administration counters that contraception is a vital element of medical care that patients have a right to expect from their health care providers. Furthermore, they insist that religious coercion is not at issue here. After all, religious organizations may still practice however they please; only religious organizations that wish to receive government funding to perform public charitable work must play by the government’s rules.
Underlying the conflict is a deeper question: What does freedom mean in the context of the modern welfare state? This may seem like a silly question. Whenever libertarian crazies like Ron Paul or Grover Norquist ascend their soapboxes to preach that big government is a gargantuan beast that crowds out our liberties with its sheer size, I roll my eyes. What does size of government have to do with personal freedom? Good governments protect liberties; bad governments violate them. Size doesn’t factor in. I never understood how anyone could object to money for social welfare programs, schools and medical care.
Recent events have demonstrated precisely where the problem lies. The modern welfare state has created a new zero-sum game between public values and personal freedoms. A government that played no role in health care could remain neutral with regard to contraception. But when taxpayer dollars are a central source of support for the nation’s health care and the government uses the power of its purse to maintain basic standards and protect consumers, the state cannot help but take a stand. It must either fund these groups or deliberately reject them.
There is something twisted about a state that collects taxes from Catholics and shuts down Catholic hospitals because they practice medicine in accordance with the dictates of Catholicism. Surely governments need not employ Christian Scientist doctors who refuse to practice medicine altogether, but to gut hospitals that provide state-of-the-art care and simply do not provide contraceptives seems absurd. In displaying inflexibility on the peripheral aspects of a job rather than focusing on the substantive core, the state unjustifiably violates the liberty and conscience of providers. At the same time, if government fails to mandate coverage for birth control, a service the vast majority of the American public sees as a necessary feature of health care, it fails to protect consumers.
Nor is this a unique occurrence. In Illinois, Massachusetts and elsewhere, Catholic adoption agencies have shut down rather than cave to the government’s demand that they tacitly endorse same-sex marriages and child-rearing. In England last year, a high court decision that found Jewish day schools in violation of nondiscrimination regulations (the schools define Jewishness traditionally, by lineage and formal conversion rather than faith and practice) threatens to destroy an entire community’s school system.
For libertarians, the solution to this catch-22 is as simple as it is fanciful: scale back the size of government to 18th-century levels. If governments don’t fund adoption agencies, health care or education at all, then they have far less regulatory power. Ta-da — no more problem!
But most of us realize this sort of far-sweeping solution is both untenable and undesirable. Government-created programs are entrenched in citizens’ expectations and corporate strategies, and no one has the political capital to work against this widespread public support. But even if we could shift these expectations, would we want to? State safety nets protect those who are most vulnerable, and the patchwork of private charities that operate in the absence of government lack the resources and the organizational reach to offer comparable services.
In the face of this conflict, most people have simply given up. They have resigned themselves to the necessity of government arbitrarily drawing a line where religious freedom must give way to public interest. But throwing up our hands ultimately betrays limited thinking and a woeful political laziness.
We need not choose between women’s easy access to contraception and religious freedom of genuine believers. The real solution lies in government working to supplement existing programs, allowing citizens access to the services they need while institutions continue to offer only the services they can faithfully provide.
We need not compel Catholic charities to do as we wish; we simply must ensure that alternative options exist. Let new programs provide contraception, and let the Catholic hospitals get on with the good work that fills 99 percent of the public’s health care expectations. Government should view its role as filling in gaps, not engineering changes in believers’ practice.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.