In the recent controversy over whether religious employers’ health insurance policies should have to cover their employees’ contraception costs, it is a shame how badly the issue became distorted.
Broadly speaking, conservatives argued that this contraceptive mandate violated the right to the free exercise of religion. Meanwhile, liberals have claimed that not requiring such coverage would have endangered the reproductive freedom of women who work for religiously-affiliated institutions. Now that the storm has calmed somewhat, dispassionate analysis reveals that the faithful have the upper hand. The contraception controversy is about religious rather than reproductive freedom — and the former should be protected, because it does not threaten the latter.
The original policy required most health insurance plans to cover contraceptives for female policyholders gratis. Last month, the Obama administration rejected the Catholic Church’s application for an exemption for Catholic institutions such as schools, charities and hospitals. After a storm of protest from religious groups — particularly the Catholic Church — and their supporters, and the expression of serious qualms even by liberal Catholics, the Obama administration offered a compromise deal in which contraceptive coverage will have to be provided by insurance companies directly, free of charge, under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Many advocacy groups on the left have portrayed the conservative response to the original policy as an attack on women’s freedom to control their own fertility. This misconceives the very notion of “freedom,” confusing it with “entitlement.” Reproductive freedom means being able to decide whether or not to have a child without interference or obstruction from the government (or any other institution). That principle would have been honored even without the contraception mandate. A woman who teaches at a Catholic school, for example, would still have been able to go out and buy it; she simply could not have counted on the school to foot the bill. She would have had to pay for it herself, which is not necessarily unaffordable. She could also have sought financial assistance from government or private organizations like Planned Parenthood.
The original policy had nothing to do with reproductive freedom per se. For an individual to be free to do something does not mean that someone else must facilitate her exercise of that freedom. The mandate did, however, hamper religious freedom, by requiring religious institutions to subsidize behavior that may have gone against their principles. Even the revised policy continues to pose some concerns for religious employers, since many such groups actually run their own insurance policies rather than farm out the job to insurance companies.
It goes without saying that employees of religious groups should be able to get their hands on contraception if they want it, with no interference from their bosses. For instance, the aforementioned Catholic schoolteacher should be able to buy the Pill without fear of losing her job if the higher-ups find out. The original contraceptive mandate, however, would have required the Church to bankroll her purchase of the Pill, which went too far. If you are free to do something, the rest of society should stay out of your way — but they do not have to pave your way.
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