Within the past week, I have been privileged to be part of a growing movement. Facebook can be a wonderful thing for organizing political movements. And this week, I have seen it in action.
The National March Against the War on Women is currently a Facebook initiative that can be found here:
Women and men all over the United States are banding together for Statewide marches on Saturday, April 28, 2012. We are mad as hell about the current agenda to reduce women to second class citizenry by denying us civil rights – our liberty. Please click the link and join us!
Coincidentally, I had an ethics paper due this week and found a way to work in the subject of employer paid contraception insurance coverage. Below is why the argument on Religious Freedom, doesn’t fly. Enjoy.
Contraception and the Liberty of Society
The United States is now embroiled in a battle over government mandated health insurance coverage for contraception. On one side are conservative religious employers claiming a breach in constitutional religious freedom. On the other side is a majority who believe free contraception will benefit society. Both sides claim the opposing stance will cause harm. In his work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill explains that a person’s behaviors and actions should be allowed so long as they do not cause harm to anyone but the individual, themselves. The problem, however, seems to be determining whom, if anyone, will be harmed. Who, in the battle over contraception, stands to be harmed the most should either side prevail? Using Mill’s argument of a person’s right to act on their own accord, it is clear that society is at most risk for harm, should the religious employers prevail.
Catholic and conservative religious leaders assert that paying for employee health insurance, that includes free contraceptive services, goes against constitutionally granted freedom of religion. They claim that offering contraceptive coverage to their employees is against churches’ stance on the use of contraception. On the other side, proponents argue that mandated insurance coverage does not equal mandated use. Furthermore, they state that offering free contraception will have positive social consequences. Proponents cite that increased accessibility will help prevent unwanted pregnancies that often lead to abortions. In addition, they posit that free contraception will decrease the number of children unintentionally born into poverty. Both issues have extreme social costs.
John Stuart Mill affirms that liberal freedoms are central to achieving happiness. Mill’s reflections propose society must allow individuals to make personal decisions, even if the decisions cause self-harm. “The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself” (Mill 5.2). Mill further expresses that we may counsel or advise against behaviors, but that ultimately, society should not impose restrictions or inflict punishment on the behaviors. “Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct” (Mill 5.2). In the case of the insurance contraception coverage, it would seem the proponents perspective on free contraception leaves conduct up to the individual, which is in line with Mill’s thinking. On the other hand, the religious employers cite that governmental force to offer coverage would cause harm by limiting religious freedoms. Using Mill’s thinking, one must determine how freedom to practice religion is limited or harmed by this mandate. Would an individual following conservative religious beliefs be forced to use contraception if their employer paid health insurance offered it? Would religious employers and their staff be limited in any way from practicing personal religious freedoms should their insurance coverage change?
When it comes to arguments such as this, we must decide if harm is imminent. Mill says we should look to “… distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter” (Mill 4.2). This suggests we must determine which option has the potential to provide the most good and which has the potential to cause the most harm. In the case of contraception coverage, the task is to determine which decision will ultimately be better for the good of society. Mill also states that we must be certain not to impose our values on others behaviors, no matter how immoral they may seem. “But neither one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it” (Mill 4.2). It seems Mill has given us clear guidelines on individual behavior and conduct that does not harm others. We must decide if the churches’ followers, including employers, stand to be harmed by a coverage mandate, as they lay claim. Will conservative church members (some of which are likely employees) be inclined to go against churches’ and their own belief systems? Will otherwise devout people be forced to relinquish moral principles because of health insurance coverage? Mill also says we must decide which act stands to do the most good. We next must then resolve whether free contraception will benefit society. Will reductions in national abortion rates and children born to poverty be good for society? Likewise, will society benefit by allowing religious conservatives to opt out of this coverage mandate? Finally, we must decide which option provides the greatest potential to do the most good for society.
Who, in the battle over contraception, stands to be harmed the most, should either side prevail? It seems clear, using Mill’s rationalization. When one looks at the conservative religious stance, it is difficult to comprehend how anyone could be harmed by a coverage mandate. The mandate does not order people to use contraception. It does not ask religious employers or persons to judge contraception as morally correct. On the other hand, society has nothing to gain and potentially much to lose by allowing employers to opt out. This could set a very dangerous precedent for limiting any medical coverage based on employers’ belief systems. An employer, who believes that only prayer can cure cancer, could eliminate cancer treatment coverage. An employer, who believes immunizations are immoral, could refuse coverage causing eradicated diseases, like polio, to become commonplace. The options to limit health insurance coverage based on personal belief systems, are nearly endless.
It is obvious that society will receive the most benefit from free contraceptive coverage. By offering free contraception through employer paid health insurance, fewer burdens are placed on public welfare systems, thus reducing government costs. Rates of children born into poverty, which contribute to many future costs including public welfare, penal systems, and long-term health issues, will decline. Abortion rates will decrease due to better accessibility of contraceptives – a valuable benefit for religious conservatives who speak out against abortion. It appears that conservative religious employers against coverage are merely attempting to impose their own morality on others. Even if the person who chooses to use contraceptives is morally harming themselves, according to Mill, the conservative employers should only attempt to counsel or express dislike for the behavior. If Mill was part of the conversation today, he most certainly would agree; conservative religious employers should not attempt to limit a person’s liberty when the choices clearly only affect the individual, themselves.
Mill, John Stuart. “Chapters 4 and 5.” On Liberty. 4th ed. London: Roberts & Green, 1869. Web. Retrieved: Feb. 24, 2012.