The HHS Mandate: This is About Contraception

The Global Picture 

As we all know, there are forces at the highest level of global politics and industry working towards the goal of spreading “reproductive rights.” Back in 1995 in The Gospel of Life (pars. 16 – 17), Pope John Paul II described the situation like this:

The Pharaoh of old, haunted by the presence and increase of the children of Israel, submitted them to every kind of oppression and ordered that every male child born of the Hebrew women was to be killed (cf. Ex 1:7-22). Today not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same way. They too are haunted by the current demographic growth, and fear that the most prolific and poorest peoples represent a threat for the well-being and peace of their own countries. Consequently, rather than wishing to face and solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and families and for every person’s inviolable right to life, they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive program of birth control…Aside from intentions, which can be varied and perhaps can seem convincing at times, especially if presented in the name of solidarity, we are in fact faced by an objective “conspiracy against life,” involving even international Institutions, engaged in encouraging and carrying out actual campaigns to make contraception, sterilization and abortion widely available….which presents recourse to contraception, sterilization, abortion and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life.

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It is urgent to focus the legal battle on the question of religious freedom to secure the First Amendment and prevent the flood of future attacks on religious freedom that will occur if this mandate stands. But at the very same time we are doing this, the government of the UK and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are hosting a Family Planning Summit in London, whose goal is “to generate unprecedented political commitment and resources from developing countries, donors, the private sector, civil society and other partners to meet the family planning needs of women in the world’s poorest countries by 2020.” This is why absolute statements such as, “this has nothing to do with contraception, it is exclusively about religious freedom” are inaccurate.

Discerning the View of the Administration

As stated in part 1 of this article, I would suggest that the primary motivation of the administration is the promotion of “reproductive rights”, but that they see a simultaneous attack on religious freedom as a powerful means to achieve that goal, since many religions oppose one or more of the items to be covered.

Consider Kathleen Sebelius’ January 20th press release, in which she said,

I believe this proposal strikes the appropriate balance between respecting religious freedom and increasing access to important preventive services.

In the quote above from Pope John Paul II, he spoke of an “objective conspiracy against life.” His phrase connotes the idea of people with evil intent trying to sterilize and abort the world into some sort of utopia. Perhaps Kathleen Sebelius has conscious evil intent, and perhaps she does not – I don’t know. There is another possibility: some people genuinely believe that contraception, sterilization and abortion are the way to make the world a better place. They are wrong in this, but they genuinely believe it. If we assume Kathleen Sebelius genuinely believes that, then her statement quoted above can be read as her attempting to balance two goods.

On that assumption, perhaps the following analogy would be an expression of her mind on the matter. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that blood transfusions are immoral, and the conventional wisdom on dealing with that is to require the children of Jehovah’s witnesses who need blood transfusions to receive them, even against their parents’ wishes by means of a court order, but that adult Jehovah’s Witnesses may refuse blood transfusions because they are of the age of consent. Now, to people who are not Jehovah’s witnesses, this seems tragic and wrong, but it is allowed. I think that Kathleen Sebelius sees the Catholic prohibition of contraception as identical to the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ prohibition of blood transfusions. Just as society limits to the bare minimum those who can refuse blood transfusions, she wants to limit to the bare minimum those who do not receive free access to FDA approved contraceptives and abortifacients.

At this juncture to argue against Secretary Sebelius by saying that contraceptives are already easily accessible and inexpensive, reveals only complete ignorance of the importance the other side puts on “reproductive rights.” They think of contraception/Catholicism in the exact same way as perhaps you, the reader of this article, think of blood transfusions/Jehovah’s Witnesses. To them, contraception and blood transfusions are simple sources of good health that make the world a better place: anyone who has a principled opposition to either of those things is odd.

A Stark Contrast Concerning Contraception and the Common Good

Thus, the Obama Administration believes that the Catholic position prohibiting contraception is both irrational and immoral, because according to them widespread contraception is the solution to the world’s problems. According to Pope Benedict XVI, however, “When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good” (Caritas in Veritate, 28). The contrast could not be starker. We need the leaders of the Church to explain why this statement of Pope Benedict is true.

That explanation is perhaps not to be given on television news interviews, but an all-out effort is needed right now to explain it to people in the pews. And this is important for the fight for religious freedom. Many Catholics have accepted the false premises that contraception is health care and promotes the common good, and this fact makes it difficult for them to grasp the threat to religious freedom and join the fight. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute indicated that six in 10 Catholics (and 56% of the general public) do not believe that their religious liberty has been threatened by the Mandate. The same poll found that 55% of Americans and 58% of Catholics agree with this statement: “employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception and birth control at no cost.”

In this regard, I am struck by Pope Paul VI’s remark in paragraph 17 of Humanae vitae where he poses this startling rhetorical question:

Who will blame a government which in its attempt to resolve the problems affecting an entire country resorts to the same measures as are regarded as lawful by married people in the solution of a particular family difficulty?

If everyone thinks contraception is helpful in their own personal lives, then you have lost any basis on which to blame a government for using it to solve larger problems. That is my main reason for thinking that in this particular religious freedom fight, leaving that false premise unchallenged undermines our entire effort. And, unless I am reading him wrong, Pope Paul VI thinks so too.

Part I: The HHS Mandate: A Question of Religious Freedom or the Life Issues?
Part III: The HHS Mandate: What Now, In Light of the Supreme Court Ruling?

  • Peter J. Colosi

    Dr. Peter J. Colosi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI.

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