January 23 2012

Mandated Birth Control and the Legislation of Morals

Libby Jacobson

Carrie Lukas already provided a thoughtful analysis of the issues surrounding religious freedom and the new health care mandate requiring employers to provide free birth control. Take a moment and read it now, if you haven’t. I have a few more points I’d like to add.

 As Carrie pointed out, requiring employers to provide free birth control forces certain religious institutions to choose between endorsing something that goes against their religious beliefs – in this case, contraception – and not offering health insurance at all. But given that employment opportunities are generally numerous (how many places in America is the local Catholic charity the largest, most influential employer in town?), women who desire birth control are going to rationally avoid employment with such organizations in the long run. Moreover, educated and employed middle-class women are a demographic that’s least likely to break the bank paying the monthly cost of birth control; a more targeted approach to getting contraceptives to women with low incomes might have called for Medicaid to cover it instead.

We should be critical whenever certain ideological forces in the government pass legislation that, whether intentional or not, has the effect of forcing people to endorse ideas that they would not freely choose to endorse. This issue of compelled speech crops up in debates over whether creationism vs. evolution ought to be taught in public classrooms, or whether the Ten Commandments can be placed on state or city property. Religious freedom is one of the foundational principles of this country, and that includes the freedom to be secular as well. Many Americans might wish the population was more open-minded and forward-thinking, but attempting to legislate or regulate a certain moral outlook into all Americans is the very definition of “Orwellian.” Just as legislation aiming to make people abstinent failed in the 1920s with Prohibition, we likewise cannot pass laws to force individuals to become more enlightened people at their core. The marketplace of ideas is supposed to be where norms and mores that are beneficial flourish, and similarly where harmful norms (like slavery, misogyny, or the appropriateness of beating one’s children) are eventually abandoned.

Of course, one could argue that the government is already in the business of legislating certain moral values: namely, “thou shalt not kill” (steal, kidnap, assault, rape, and so on). Be that as it may, there’s a glaring difference between laws which prohibit actions that directly infringe on others’ rights vs. those which mandate the provision of some imagined “right,” whether it be to housing, education, or birth control. One type of law prohibits violence and aggression; the other, as our history shows us, gives us government boondoggles and culture wars.

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