“Ban Contraception?” the banner ad said, urging viewers to click it in order to tell Congress to “support women’s health!”
The suggestion that cultural conservatives want to make birth control illegal is risible. Most social conservatives, being Evangelicals, have zero problem with contraception whatsoever, and those Catholics who obey the Church’s teaching on contraception make zero effort to outlaw it.
But here we are. The HHS mandate requiring health insurance plans to cover not only contraception proper but also abortifacients and sterilization procedures abides. The Affordable Care Act, of which the HHS mandate is a part, survived a Supreme Court challenge in the summer, and the administration pushing it survived an election in the fall.
On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a revised version of the HHS mandate. Problem solved? Some on the Catholic left think so, finding in the revised mandate a way forward for everyone: insurance companies and the government will provide women with contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilizations, while religious institutions keep their consciences clear.
E. J. Dionne writes, “This war has been bad for everyone involved. Obama has moved to end it. Here’s a prayer the bishops will also be instruments of peace.” The editors at Commonweal write, “The claims of conscience must never be ignored, but they do not necessarily entitle one to relief from any practical difficulty that arises from disagreeing with most of one’s fellow citizens about a duly enacted law.”
But this seems to me shortsighted. Even if one keeps one’s conscience clear under the new rules, contraception, abortion, and sterilization do not serve the common good with which Dionne and Commonweal are otherwise—rightly—so concerned. Indeed, their columns defer more to popular opinion than to the teaching of the Church in this area.
We’ve waged the legal battle against the HHS mandate on religious liberty grounds, asking our fellow citizens and Catholics to let us be weird without really explaining why this order is so odious to us. I suppose we need to play according to the rules of the game we’re given, which means fighting on First Amendment grounds. Perhaps, though, we’re missing an opportunity to preach the gospel of life—and communicate a general human truth.
In Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI dealt not so much with issues of particularly Catholic morality but with the profound issues of the human person and human culture, arguing—indeed, prophesying, as it turns out—that contraception would lead to a “general lowering of morality” and the treatment of women as “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment.” He warned, too, of “the danger of this power passing into the hands of those public authorities who care little for the precepts of the moral law” who “may even impose their use on everyone.” When dealing with sexuality, we are not merely in the realm of religion but the realm of reason. These are not matters of religious scruples, but matters of public concern concerning the common good.
Thus, when Michael Gerson writes, “It is a valid public health goal to promote the broad availability of contraception” so long as it doesn’t trample fundamental rights, the faithful Catholic must object. For the widespread availability of contraception involves risks to women and consequences for society even beyond those envisioned by the prophetic Pope Paul VI.
Research results have found the Pill to be carcinogenic, which may help explain the dramatic rise of breast cancer rates since the Pill’s introduction. There are also real ecological concerns, as European studies have found high levels of synthetic hormones (used in contraceptives) in fish, leading to their sterility. Edward Green, senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, defended Pope Benedict’s claim that saturating the African continent with condoms wasn’t helping in the fight against AIDS. And whereas Malthusian demographers once fired apocalyptic fears of a population bomb, many are now concerned with the social and economic upheaval involved in the demographic decline that most modernized nations face.
Cultural pluralism is in rather short supply in these days of ascendant cultural liberalism; a grand bargain with the pelvic left looks implausible. Revolutionaries always aim to complete their revolution, and so any compromise they offer is tactical and temporary. Contraception corrodes the common good, and we’d do well to make that point to our fellow citizens if we wish to maintain our liberties and build a culture of life.
“Ban contraception?” Impossible. But we can live lives of fruitful witness to divine love, for only love is credible, while explaining with patience that contraception does not serve the common good, and thus resist the attempt to raise enshrine it as a fundamental human right.
“The Vindication of Humanae Vitae,” Mary Eberstadt
“A Dhimmitude of Sorts,” R. R. Reno
“The Revised HHS Mandate,” Joseph Knippenberg
“The Naked Private Square,” Matthew Schmitz
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