There’s an aspect of this flap over Obama’s insistence that health care policies offered by institutions with religious affiliation cover birth control that I don’t see many people discussing. All the posturing over how this is anti-religious and a blatant slap at religious freedom, blah blah, is both predictable and irrelevant. For one, it’s not. For one thing, it doesn’t even approach the kind of infringement of a basic freedom that Bush’s infamous “gag rule” on abortion information represented, which Obama overturned.
But there is a common link between both that Bush-era ruling and the current stance taken by the Catholic bishops. Namely, a complete lack of confidence in their message. What it comes down to is a denial that people have not only the right but the ability to make decisions for themselves based on good information.
It’s simple. The Gag Rule assumed that if people never found out about certain options, then they wouldn’t use those options, but that if they did learn about them, they would. It represented a complete lack of confidence that people could both hear all the options and then make decisions in their own best interest, some of which would be consistent with the policy Bush’s administration was backing. Likewise here. Just because birth control is covered by an insurance policy purchased for the benefit of employees does not automatically mean that all these people will start using birth control. If the Catholic message is sound, if it has merit, that option will never be exercised.
But no. Safer, they must think, to restrict access, to keep it off the table, to ban the pamphlet, and remove the service than to trust that people will do what the Catholic Church wants them to do.
For all the posturing about what is or is not “American,” this is as unAmerican as it gets. Honored more in rhetoric than practice, the right of the individual to decide for him or herself is supposed to be at the heart of what makes us who we are. So how does barring choice square with that?
Granted, we do it all the time. We do it in drug use, we have age-specific restrictions dealing with movies, bars, driving, we have all manner of qualifying rules and regulations that keep people away from certain options, and a lot of it makes perfect sense.
But this is not one of them. If we were going to ban coverage of birth control from all insurance policies, then there would be no controversy over religious issues. It would be controversial for a different reason, but since the ban would be universal it would not be liable to the kind of ideological argumentation we’re now seeing. But if you’re going to offer it to some and not others based on where they work, then you have a basic civil rights question.
Look, this isn’t even about making churches provide birth control. It’s about church-affiliated institutions with large employee payrolls that are not denomination-exclusive—like universities and hospitals—being required to serve that employee base in accord with the standards every other employer must meet. Despite the association with a religious institution, what we’re talking about is workplace rules where the institution and the community interface on the level of employment.
But that argument will be made in court, no doubt. What strikes me about this is the so far unremarked tendency in this country to not trust in our own messages. We do this all the time, suppressing certain ideas, barring certain speakers from addressing certain audiences, criticizing open discourse over things which we fear—it’s arguable that most Americans had no idea what communism actual was back during the Cold War, debatable whether we do now, but we so feared it that we wouldn’t even talk about it—and frankly that’s not us. It’s not who we claim to be, not who we’d like to be, but there it is.
Of course, in this instance the Catholic bishops have a real concern. According to studies, 98% of Catholic women use or have used birth control. Obviously, the message the Church wants delivered doesn’t have as much traction as they’d like. By that token, taking a stand on this is clearly in response to evident failure.
But it’s still a matter of personal choice, something the Catholic Church—or, for that matter, any church—has never been comfortable with. Trusting an individual to make a decision like this for herself has always been fraught with the likelihood that they will make the right choice—but not the one desired.
This is vestigial moralizing. If we accept as a concept that all people should be considered equal, then it follows that the opportunities and privileges available to everyone should be equal. At one time, that equality was meted out based on the notion of a family unit. The family, represented by the man, enjoyed the rights and privileges of the community. With changes in technology and the economy, the focus has shifted more narrowly on the individual, which has eroded the primacy of the male as women have become more and more able to act independently*. If we are serious about equality, then it should come as no surprise that we have to make adjustments for those things that enable the expression of equality. That is the American message and all this political posturing over birth control is exactly apposite that message.
In the wake of the Susan G. Komen/Planned Parenthood kerfluffle, it seems finally enough people are waking up to the fact that if we do not assert the primacy of that message, we could lose what equality we’ve gained since—
Well, since the 1920s when you could receive a prison sentence for distributing pamphlets about birth control. Or since the 1940s when women were forced out of jobs they had held all during WWII and were told they were incapable of doing those jobs by virtue of their sex. Or since 1965, when finally the Supreme Court declared that couples had a basic right to contraception. Or—
The Catholic Church obvious doesn’t trust its people to heed its message. It may be that the message is flawed. Or maybe Americans are beginning to trust their own message.
*I am talking here about the way society was structured, not the right or wrong of the distribution of rights and privileges. It is an unfortunate fact that the basic biological reality concerning reproduction has placed women in a vulnerable position in regards to power relations. My belief is that there has never been a excuse for the disenfranchisement of women, but until effective birth control and the subsequent changes in economic life that resulted, the initiative has been with men to set the rules. Even so, it took a long time for men as a group to accept equality as a reality, never mind as a principle, and I do not for a minute believe that the majority of men who now take it as given are of sufficient numbers to guarantee we would never return to a culture of female subjugation. The attack on reproductive rights strikes at the main foundation of contemporary political freedoms for women.