Worlds Collide Again: Conscience vs. Health Care

If you have been paying attention to the news in the last week or two, you know about the national controversy concerning mandatory insurance coverage of contraceptives. The recently-passed national health care law includes a requirement that employers or insurance companies offer free coverage for contraceptives with no co-pay. It’s hailed by some as a great advancement for women’s health in the United States. It has also met with strong objections from many, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. You can view congressional testimony from LCMS President Matthew Harrison on YouTube concerning that objection.

This controversy is another great example of two irreconcilable views on the basic principles that define American society and government. More on that later.

It has been claimed by some, including Senator Merkley of Oregon, that allowing employers or insurers to refuse coverage for free contraceptives without co-pay would be tantamount to denying essential health care to women, and it would lead to the denial of any number of procedures or products based upon the whim or prejudice of an employer or insurer. This claim is demagoguery, an appeal to the emotions of the public instead of reasoned discussion. It’s also based on at least two fallacies.

In the first place, an employer or insurer who refuses to pay for a product (especially an inexpensive one like the most common contraceptives) does not thereby prevent the employee from obtaining it. In a free society, that employee is still able to prioritize his or her own spending and buy the product. If I don’t buy you a beer, I’m not coercing you to refrain from drinking. In this case, there are some who claim that free contraception is a basic human right, and therefore it can’t be denied. I wish that I could say the same for beef jerky, but I fear it would be hard to prove.

Secondly, if an employee is unhappy with the limits of his health care plan, that employee is also free to find a different one, or even to find a different employer. This may not be welcome news, but it does raise the question of priorities. What’s more valuable: free contraceptives or a particular job with its own health insurance? It’s the employee’s choice, because there will be another employer or insurer who doesn’t have the same objection.

Finally, the objection to contraceptives, especially those that can end a newly-conceived human life instead of merely preventing the conception, is a deeply-held moral objection based upon natural law and religion. This is no convenient whim or prejudice. It’s based upon both good science and well-founded, long-accepted moral principles. There are even multiple things at issue here, including the moral principle of protecting fragile human life, but also the future well-being of our society and nation. That future requires naturally-married men and women to beget and raise virtuous children in stable families. Therefore, government should promote this, instead of hindering it by undermining the purpose and benefit of natural marriage. But there is a view of society that places little value on such things, which leads us to our main point.

The Progressive Movement was popular through the first quarter of the 20th Century. Its champions included Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. Lyndon Johnson later followed the same path. Progressivism carried a lot of momentum during the administration of FDR, even as its echoes carried through the ranks of the avant-garde in 1930’s Germany, Great Britain, and probably other places too. Its influence is widely felt today across party lines, though it’s really the Democratic Party that has officially embraced it. The present controversy is only one example where we can clearly see the difference between the Progressive concepts of liberty and justice on one hand, and the same concepts as proposed in the founding of the United States on the other hand. These are the two worlds colliding over free contraceptives.

The founding principles of the United States are listed in the Declaration of Independence. It asserts that these principles are self-evident, so that they stand without proof. Each leads into the next, though, so that they build upon one another. Here are the five propositions upon which the nation is founded:

  • That all men are created equal.
  • That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.
  • That among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
  • That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
  • That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Notice that the last proposition describes the intent of the Framers, “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form….” The principles upon which the Constitution was framed, and the reason for its built-in limitations upon the powers of federal government, are the very principles listed above.

First, all men (a classic term for all humans, used also in the Nicene Creed) are created equal. This is an equality of kind, requiring that every human creature be accorded the same respect and dignity. Some will argue here that many of the Founders were slave-owners, so that this proposition is nullified by their hypocrisy. That argument is unsustainable. First, hypocrisy in a speaker or writer does not determine the truthfulness or value of what he says. Second, a number of the Founders worked to end slavery, on the same principles listed in the Declaration. The fact that their work did not come to fruition until four score and seven years later does not negate the principles under which they labored. In fact, it shows great foresight and humanitarian idealism on their part. Some of them considered it to be a greater cruelty to release slaves unprepared to live on their own at that time, than to care for them as fellow human beings until conditions were right for them to enjoy their liberty. It’s hard to judge that decision when we are over 200 years distant from its circumstances.

Others will point to the awful treatment of the Indians (the native inhabitants of America at the time of Columbus) by Americans in later years. Laying aside the fact that this treatment was often based upon particular wars waged between the Indians and the Americans, and that the butchery of war was two-sided, we should recognize again that the Founders attempted to establish relations with the Indians based upon their status as equal human beings. To some degree, it was successful. To the degree that other Americans helped to destroy that cordial relationship by contradicting or ignoring the principle of equality, it must be pointed out that the abuse of a good thing does not destroy its value and use. (Abusus non tollit usum.) The principle of equality stands, despite the sins of those associated with it.

Proceeding from the universal equality of human beings, the Declaration says that every human individual is endowed with unalienable rights. Remember that these rights are connected to each individual human creature, by virtue of its humanity. The rights are called unalienable, which means that they can never be separated from the human individual, since they are attached to his or her very nature. The three rights listed are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The right to life is trampled when someone else kills the individual. The right to liberty says that an individual ought to be free from coercion by anyone else. The only exception to this is the case of children, who are under the guardianship of others until they are capable of exercising the liberty inherent in their own nature. Finally, each human being has the innate right to pursue happiness: to take advantage of his or her own labor and receive the benefits that come with it. The chief tangible benefit is material possessions. The right to pursue happiness, then, is the right to convert your own work into property, and to enjoy the ownership of that property with its advantages.

It bears repeating that these rights exist because every human being is created equal. There is no difference based upon intelligence, race, gender, or any other distinction that may be in vogue. Simply by being human, an individual possesses these rights alongside every other human being. By the same token, justice between human beings must be blind to all of those distinctions, and laws must apply equally to every citizen.

The Declaration builds upon these basic rights by saying they are the reason government is necessary. Government’s purpose is to secure and protect these individual rights as much as possible. In that respect, the Declaration provides the reasoning behind the design of the United States Constitution. Since government can only accomplish its work through coercion, but its purpose is to protect the liberty of each individual, it operates under a compromise. The Declaration calls it “the consent of the governed.” Government must be limited in size to minimize the coercion it imposes upon its citizens, and to maximize the protection it affords against such coercion by others. That explains the Constitution’s separation of powers and other limits upon the growth and operation of the federal government.

The Bill of Rights expands upon the three rights listed in the Declaration. The first nine Amendments to the Constitution are all about protecting the liberty of the individual against abuse by the government. (The Tenth Amendment does the same for the autonomy of states within the union.)

Because individual rights in the Constitution limit the sway of government, Progressives disparagingly call them “negative rights.” By contrast, they would like to see the addition of “positive rights.” Examples proposed by Franklin Roosevelt include the right to a job, the right to a house, and others. Another example would be the right to free contraception, which supports a right to engage in sexual activity without the risk of becoming a parent. Though this “right” undermines natural marriage and our free society, Progressives are happy to include it into their family of new, “positive rights.” This new type of right may also be distinguished from the classical liberties of the nation’s founding in that the Progressive rights are not for individuals to enjoy because of their identity as human beings. Instead, they are “collective rights,” which an individual possesses inasmuch as it belongs to a certain group of people identified by government as in need of protection.

The reason for advancing these collective or positive rights, is not to safeguard the liberty of individuals, but to provide security and opportunity for groups of people judged to be at a disadvantage. A common word for such groups is “minorities.” The Progressive position on free contraception is to characterize the debate in just those terms. To the Progressive, the debate is all about the rights of women as a minority group (though they actually outnumber men slightly; go figure). They can even make their argument sound like it’s about individual liberty, saying that government should not coerce women in their health care decisions. But the lie becomes evident when they do not afford liberty of conscience to those who must pay for the collective “right” of women to receive free contraception.

For the Progressive, the positive right for women to engage in sexual activity without risk of parenthood is far more important than the individual liberty of anyone to live according to his conscience. The Progressive sees the role of government being to coerce individuals into providing all that is necessary for the securities and opportunities identified in the collective rights that Progressivism promotes. This ends up being enormously expensive, requiring a massive bureaucratic government, but more importantly, it runs roughshod over the principles upon which the nation was originally founded. It disregards and destroys the individual liberties of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness in exchange for the promise of equal security and opportunity. It exchanges the classical notion of blind justice for justice that favors various groups that are considered to be minorities or disadvantaged.

From the perspective of the Declaration of Independence, Progressivism turns liberty into the tyranny of every individual who would like to stand on his own merits and work. It’s no wonder that Progressives would like to do away with the Constitution’s limits upon the powers of federal government. Those limits still safeguard the liberty of individual Americans, to some degree, and restrain the Progressive agenda.

It’s also noteworthy that the Progressive ideal is utopian in nature. Harrison Bergeron is one critique that demonstrates some of the problems. Progressivism shares many features of communism and socialism. This should not be surprising, since it was born and matured in the same world-wide echo chamber as Germany’s national socialism and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. It’s not far off the mark when conservatives today accuse Progressives of being socialists. In a sense they are socialists, even if the label is not an exact fit.

This controversy about mandatory free contraceptives is only the tip of the iceberg. It’s a skirmish in a much larger war for the soul of the United States. If the classic liberal principles of individual liberty that were incorporated into the foundation of America will endure, then American citizens need to learn the true nature of this debate, and what’s really at stake. Progressives may really want to provide a chicken in every pot and a car in every driveway, and the idea may appeal to many citizens, but the cost of such a vision for America is the individual liberty that has been America’s greatest heritage and blessing for almost 236 years. May God continue to bless the United States by awakening her citizens to the dangerous and precipitous loss of liberty that could result from the next few election cycles.