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Phil-osophically Speaking: February 16, 2012

Contraception in Health Plans

The ideological fires are burning hot in the White House. In stoking the flames, however, one needs to remember that the same fire that warms you and cooks your food can also consume you. This is the lesson that the Obama Administration is painfully learning as it awkwardly retreats from its requirement that religious employers cover contraception in health plans.

As with its “Affordable Health Care Act,” the administration has recklessly challenged the “separation of powers” clause, which is one of the centerpieces of constitutional government. Under the initial Health and Human Services regulation, all religious institutions except houses of worship would be required to cover birth control, including hospitals, schools and charities. If this isn’t a clear breach of the “free exercise” of religion clause then I don’t know what is. 

Offering free birth control was a patently political move designed to mostly attract women registered as political independents. Things, however, went quickly awry for the Obama Administration, which ignored the counsel of Vice President Joe Biden (usually a wise move), who strongly opposed the mandate. Obama’s political advisors, however, apparently believed that the Catholic Church, which opposes artificial birth control, would behave in its usual feckless manner. No longer a mighty bulwark for moral and cultural values, the Church’s influence has steadily declined ever since the spirit of Vatican II sought a too comfortable accommodation with secularism and modernity. With the majority of Catholics practicing contraception and with the Church still reeling from its horrendous handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal, such an initiative looked like political catnip.

In response to this bureaucratic edict, the Church has rediscovered its once resonant voice, which is being heard by others outside its flock. Many Protestant Evangelists and Jews, who traditionally don’t adhere to the Church’s teaching regarding artificial birth control, have made common cause with Catholics because they see the measure eroding religious liberty and pluralism.

Even those without any religious affiliation have pilloried the Department of Health and Human Services for mandating that any one of us must pay for insurance covering contraception. The very premise of insurance is that in return for a premium you’re protected, at least financially, from the larger calamities of life. Insurance companies regularly discriminate about what is essential and what is peripheral. Car insurance pays for your vehicle being damaged or stolen but doesn’t pay for oil, new tires or windshield fluid; medical insurance pays for drug prescriptions and hospital care but it doesn’t pay for Band-Aids or Vicks VapoRub. For the same reason, insurance-funded birth control is an abysmal idea. Moreover, as a professor of the University of Chicago puts it, anyone who can afford a cell phone can easily afford condoms.

Health care law is a morass of contradictions and non-sequiturs because of our current tax laws — specifically the tax deductibility of employer provided group insurance. One solution would be to eliminate the tax subsidy on employment-based plans and have employers offer a cash alternative to their health plans. Every increase in coverage translates into an increase in premiums. If your employer is paying for your health insurance, he could be paying you more in salary instead — in fact, health insurance is salary in disguise. There is no free lunch no matter how you cut the government mandate pie. Someone, somewhere, has to pay for it.

The inclusion of birth control as another mandated health insurance perk is simply another way of raising taxes for ultimately that is the only way it can be financed. The federal takeover of medicine has created tensions best avoided in a pluralistic society that must cohere despite its differences. When the federal government decides something like birth control should be mandated, then anyone receiving federal dollars must comply irrespective of their beliefs and that puts people and institution at odds. As government expands its control over our lives, we become more and more divided.

Because of the uproar, the Obama White House now offers a compromise, which I very briefly perused. At first glance, it seems a distinction without a difference, but I’ll withhold judgment until I’m better acquainted with the details. Abortion and birth control are legally permitted, but those who object have never been compelled to provide those services or pay for them. This accommodation has established an uneasy peace between the contending factions of our society—- but peace just the same.

When Moses Sexius, the warden of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport Rhode Island, penned a letter to the newly elected President of the United States, George Washington, he anxiously expressed hope that his people, an insular race who throughout history suffered under the oppressed rule of monarchs, potentates and despots, might find in the shade of this new government, “erected by the Majesty of the People,” safety as free citizens to practice their faith. Washington reassuringly replied in words that have become a monument of religious freedom:

… the government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make all of us in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.

Each year, the same Newport Synagogue re-reads Washington’s letter in a public ceremony. It might be a good idea for the Oval Office to follow their example.