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Thursday, February 09, 2012  

Who's Missing?

Matt Yglesias is entirely right, I think, about the warped nature of the contraception mandate debate:

An underplayed angle in all this is that it highlights the extreme awkwardness of trying to build a health care system around a set of subsidies and regulations on employers. If people's health care coverage was instead some blend of things they paid for out of pocket and things the government pays for as a social service, then we'd just be having an argument about whether or not the government should pay for women to get free or discounted contraceptives. One important argument against that idea would be the general fiscal tightwad sense that the government shouldn't spend money on anything. Another would be the religious objections of social conservatives. But since very few Americans have strong moral objections to contraceptives, the social conservatives would lose out and contraceptives would be publicly subsidized to the extent that liberals can persuade people to pay the fiscal cost.

I think this is correct. "Conscience" shouldn't enter into it, except insofar as all debates about public policy involve matters of conscience. I have to pay taxes for illegal wars that Jonathan Last favors, and he has to pay taxes for contraception that I favor. Everyone wins and loses in the same way, and no one's conscience must carry a unique burden.

But since we've chosen to stick with employer-provided health insurance (to a large degree), we will inevitably have to deal with the complications of what amounts to a public-private partnership. And on the specific issue I'm inclined to agree with Ross Douthat. The dissent from the new contraception rule, he says, is not just about being anti-contraception generally or about being fond of the bishops. Rather, it

also has to do with a basic commitment to the kind of institutional pluralism and tolerance of principled dissent that the United States has always wisely tried to cultivate. And here I find Drum’s overall perspective simply appalling. The idea that the state should only “tread carefully” on issues of liberty, conscience and freedom of religion in areas where polling data shows significant support for the position or community in question is a recipe for majoritarian tyranny and government overreach. The logic that he’s applying to orthodox Catholics could be applied just as easily to the Amish, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, and a host of other groups that don’t have the kind of institutional resources that Roman Catholicism can muster in its own defense. Yes, sometimes state interests are compelling enough to trump religious liberties, and defenders of this mandate have every right to make that case. But the argument that the state’s interests can trump religious liberties so long as the group of people being asked to violate their consciences is small enough is not an argument at all.

Again, this shouldn't have to be the case, because everyone should be insured apart from their employment. And no, I haven't forgotten that Ross thought Muslims hadn't quite earned the right to build a religious building with their own money in a place that Sarah Palin disapproved of. And while Ross hasn't catered to this sort of nonsense, this issue has resurrected the folk legend that Plan B aborts fertilized embryos (it doesn't; if you take Plan B after fertilization, you're as likely to end up pregnant as if you didn't take it). Ross's view of religious liberty, like that of roughly everybody else in the entire world, swings mostly on whether he finds the religious view or group in question sympathetic.

That being said, he has a point, and it's been echoed by plenty of people who are not big fans of the bishops:

If this issue a matter of conscience only for the “formal hierarchy of the Catholic Church,” then why is the White House taking so much criticism from Catholics with a reputation for disagreeing with the hierarchy — from Commonweal Catholics and National Catholic Reporter Catholics, from famous Catholic liberals like E.J. Dionne and Chris Matthews, Catholic Democrats like Tim Kaine and Bob Casey, Jr., and so on?

Anything jump out at you about this list of liberal luminaries? Michael Sean Winters, E.J. Dionne, Chris Matthews, Bob Casey, Jr.--you may as well add John Larson, Joe Manchin, and anyone else I've found opining on this (including yours truly)? It might just be the sources I've read, but I have yet to find a non-celibate working woman line up with the bishops against contraceptive coverage for the bishops' employees. Surely they exist, but my guess is that the forty percent of women in surveys who don't support this regulation are very disproportionately retired or staying at home. Women who earn paychecks tend to be very, very uninterested in having John Boehner, Timothy Dolan, or even Sr. Carol Keehan decide when they should be having children. No one seems to have tracked down a CNA at St. Mary's Hospital with three kids to ask her opinion on this. Some people, after all, have more than a conscience at stake in this decision.

UPDATE: The more I think about this, the more it becomes clear to me that the whole notion of "conscience" in this instance is a construct of privilege. I think a lot about my great-grandmothers, one of whom was disowned by her parents because she had a child and another who bore ten children in the first two decades of the last century. I don't know what they thought about anything like this, because of course no one thought to ask them. But in any event, I imagine Great-Grandma Dueholm saying, "Nobody asked me if I wanted to risk my life in childbirth every two years, but YOU have a CONSCIENCE. Good for you!" It's enormously important for civil society to be left alone by the state to the greatest reasonable extent. But it bears noting that someone has to pay to protect the conscience of Michael Sean Winters.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 9:33 AM
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