Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Extents of Religious Liberty

In my post on contraception and the recent HHS Mandate, a commenter, Bertrand, tells me he's disgusted by my position. He also defends the encroachment on religious freedom by offering up what he sees as analogous, where I assume he thinks I'd agree that religious freedom should be limited (the case of Mormons and blood transfusions).

(I take it he thinks I'm arguing a special case because I happen to be Catholic, but this ignores that oodles of people from other faiths have also risen up to defend our religious liberty--they have no vested interest in not mandating contraception.)

I suppose the underlying argument is that religious freedom is not absolute in the US. There have been Supreme Court cases, such as not allowing polygamy, where it has been limited. And I dare say most of us would take it for granted that if a new religion popped up demanding human sacrifice that we would not allow that.  I am not unaware that religious freedom is not absolute. It is actually in the constitution, for instance, that we cannot establish a state church for the American people--that is a constitutional limitation on religious freedom.

In some sense, we should be glad that people making this argument are at least being honest--that religious freedom is being violated by the HHS Mandate. That's a step in the right direction, instead of denying it isn't or pretending that it's somehow not important, or trying to spin this situation into a "war on women," that it is somehow about "denying" contraception or outlawing it, which is entirely ludicrous but sadly is being pawned off on the public by advocates of the Mandate.

My response to this objection is, to put it simply, that any limitation on our First Amendment right to free exercise of religion should ideally find its justification in the Constitution itself (such as the right to life) or clearly in natural law. As I understand it, the judicial branch has come up with the idea of "compelling interest" of the state, and so if and when this issue goes to court, that will be the standard. I think it's a bit too vague and generous, personally. But hey, I'm not a judge, so take my opinion for what it's worth.

As to the specific example asked, here's the deal. Let's say we did give Mormon employers the option to not include transfusions. Nobody is making me work for them. As a potential employee, I should take that into account that they don't cover transfusions and decide if I want to work at a place that doesn't cover it. It's my choice to work for them; it's their choice to decide what they can cover.

It's the same principle we're talking about for Catholics and the coverage of contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs--nobody forces people to work at our health care providers, charitable organizations, or to go to our universities. So yeah, I think people (let's not forget that we're talking about the rights of the people who run these organizations, not inhuman corporate entities) should be able to exclude things they find morally objectionable based on religious reasons, because it's a constitutional freedom.

We could, of course, also debate the merits of "compelling interest" in this case. And even on those vague grounds, the Administration has a shaky case at best. Even if we were to agree that contraception should be considered "health care," it is widely freely available through other means via organizations like Planned Parenthood. So it'd be hard to justify this violation of the First Amendment just on the grounds of availability.

But even further, I reject that this is necessary health care, and I reject on plainly non-religious grounds. We're talking about a completely preventable condition--pregnancy. All you have to do to avoid it is, duh, not have sex. So if someone is in a position where they it would negatively impact her health to become pregnant, she doesn't need expensive drugs or procedures to help her with that. Just don't have sex while you're fertile.

And this is not rocket surgery. Natural family planning using the symptothermal method is not hard to learn. It requires very little investment--get a basal thermometer and a piece of paper and pen. Track your temps and your mucus, and you're good to go--it's not total abstinence, just during a specific period during your cycle. It's proven effective. Not only that, you don't have to muck up your body with drugs or jerk around with devices. It's homeopathic! It's organic! It's all natural! It's great!

But again, this would only be necessary for those who can't find it free, a small number today and even smaller after the mandate (including granting Catholics the exemptions they want).

On the other hand, if we flip it around, it's even clearer that the mandate is pretty ridiculous. What we're doing is, essentially, asking everyone to pay so that some women can have a more expansive sex life. And let's not forget that STDs are a serious problem, right? The pill and its like do not protect against that, but they do give a sense of freedom to have sex. So if we're talking public health, it seems a bit backwards to give people drugs that are enablers for the spread of disease.

And one more thing, contraception of most kinds are available. The pill, sterilization, and related are just one means. There are cheaper options, such as condoms, which we're told also protect against STDs. So in terms of public health, there seems to be more case for them than the pill, although abstinence and NFP education are even safer and less expensive options. So why doesn't the government fund the spread of these, if it's real motivation is purely health-driven?

Preventing pregnancy is not analogous to preventing disease. For the Administration to effectively defend compelling interest related to public health, they have a huge burden to prove. And it seems they know they can't do it, because they've asked a court to throw out a case because they claim they'll modify it yet.

So as I see it, not only is the HHS Mandate wrong at the basic religious freedom principle level, but it is also wrong in even coming close to anything resembling compelling interest.

P.S. I'm not a doctor, but I'm told that some women are prescribed the pill for non-contraceptive reasons. That in my opinion could be an exception as it is meant to treat a medical condition, and I don't think that violates my religious principles.

P.P.S. If people feel strongly that all women should have access to contraception, I suggest that they coordinate and fund clinics and the like who can provide it. Or heck, they can just create a fund to cover it for the women who work for Catholic agencies. We don't need the government to mandate violation of the First Amendment to achieve their ends.