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R. R. Reno, Editor


In the February 22nd Republican debate in Arizona, John King of CNN raised a question about birth control: “Since birth control is the latest hot topic, which candidate believes in birth control, and if not, why?” Mitt Romney recognized this as a return to the question that moderator George Stephanopoulos had asked him about contraception in the previous January 7th debate.

The audience booed and showed dissatisfaction that this question was brought up again: “Do you believe in contraception” is a “politically incorrect” question. Politically incorrect questions are the type that one just does not bring up in public, because most interpret the question as evidence that the questioner is backward or uninformed.

But Romney, who indicated in the previous debate that he had no objection to contraception, looked for and found a reasonable issue: He criticized government imposition of requirements which conflict with religious belief, such as Obama’s recent mandate for insurance coverage of contraceptives even by Catholic institutions, which understand contraception to be a moral violation. The other debaters followed in the same pattern.

The cause célèbre that made this a hot topic had to do with Catholic opposition to the president’s plan for requiring insurers or insured to cover contraceptives. The U.S. Senate, on March 1st this year, backed up the president, voting 51-48 to require Catholic hospitals, universities, and religious organizations to pay for insurance policies that will offer contraception and abortion drugs for their employees.

Moral opposition to contraception now is considered an outdated “Catholic” position, although most Protestants once considered it immoral. The Episcopalian Lambeth conference in 1930 overturned previous moral restrictions on contraception; and this decision paved the way for most Protestant denominations over the next few decades to change positions on this particular moral issue.

But, as I mentioned in a previous column , the question of the morality of contraception was not Stephanopoulos’ point in the January 7th debate. Stephanopoulos was asking whether the state could prohibit contraception. Seeing that no one was catching the ball, he finally gave a hint to all the debaters about what he was looking for, by citing the 1965 Supreme Court decision, Griswold v. Connecticut , in which the State of Connecticut lost its power of restricting contraceptives, because of the “right to privacy.”

What the debaters could have commented on, then, was the fact that the “right to privacy” interpretation (not found specifically in the Constitution), which was used in 1965 to support the right of couples to use contraceptives, was also the legal precedent used in the 1973 decisions protecting the right of a woman to abort her child.

It is remarkable that a highly-educated panel with pro-life lawyers, a professor, and an obstetrician, did not see where Stephanopolous was trying to lead them. For Griswold v. Connecticut laid the groundwork for the decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton , which effectively legitimated abortion because of the presumed right of privacy for a woman to abort her child. (Of course, many would say there’s quite a moral difference between private use of contraceptives and private expulsion of a human fetus”yet the issue being raised was not about morality, but about an important legal precedent.)

In the February 22nd debate, however, the issue was not about whether a state could prohibit contraception, but about whether the federal government could impose contraception. It became clear in this debate that, although most of the GOP speakers”with the exception of Rick Santorum”have no problem with contraception, they are against the imposition of policies on Catholic or other institutions that do have objections. Commendably, all the candidates want to protect the conscience rights of Catholic institutions regarding contraception, sterilization, and abortion.

But they still apparently fail to connect the dots. The “privacy”-right of contraception has now ironically been metamorphosed into a quite public and universal “right to contraceptives.”

The right to privacy, in other words, which prevented a state from banning contraceptives and the government from banning abortion, has evolved into a publicly-applicable right to contracept or abort, which all citizens must respect and support. Even if there are religious objections, religious institutions must not stand in the way of full implementation of these rights, for example, by withholding funding for them, directly or indirectly.

The citizenry is now ironically pervaded with public imposition of things that used to be considered too private to interfere with. Catholic institutions are being asked to publicly provide support for strictly private contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization; the government wants to include public funding for women’s purely private choices to abort.

When Mitt Romney was asked about contraception in the earlier debate, he answered, “Contraception is working fine. Leave it alone,” to the laughter of his audience. But the still unanswered question is, will the forces that were unleashed from the Griswold contraception decision leave us alone?

Howard P. Kainz is Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at Marquette University. His most recent book is The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct.

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