Based on decades’ worth of experience with, and reading about, the U.S. Catholic bishops, I think Cardinal O’Malley is more the rule than the exception among that group. But the readiness with which people accept the idea of the bishops as sex-obsessed GOP partisans shows how much emotional baggage is weighing down this debate (and, sadly, other current debates as well). Every time I hear that some polemicist has labeled a woman a “slut” because she uses or supports contraception, or that some writer thinks this HHS controversy is a terrific opportunity to teach America how bad premarital sex is and that the Sexual Revolution was a big mistake, my heart sinks — not only because I disagree strongly with those particular views, but because I know that others are paying attention, and drawing some very unhelpful conclusions. They are thinking: The people who are against the HHS mandate claim that they’re really concerned about “religious liberty.” But they openly admit what their real agenda is: They think women like me — ordinary women with ordinary sexuality — are sluts, and they believe in rolling back sexual liberty, which they call the Sexual Revolution. I need to be like Reagan was when he was facing down the air-traffic controllers: Stand up to the bullies now, and they won’t be a problem later. Once a person has reached that point, it’s really hard to get him or her to reconsider.
But reconsideration can happen. It’s the story about how I became pro-life. I grew up in a feminist, pro-choice environment, in which most of the adult role models I had were feminist and pro-choice. To become pro-life carried the baggage, for me, of a profound act of disloyalty. But I reached the point where I could separate the issue — the humanity of the unborn human being — from all the other emotional baggage. Yes, I believe women are fully equal human beings; no, I don’t “believe men should make decisions about women’s lives” (standard pro-choice phrase, back then); but these beliefs are not inconsistent with my recognition of the biological fact that the human fetus is a human being and thus deserves legal protections. People can suspect me of “really” being pro-life only because I’m secretly anti-feminist or secretly anti–sexual freedom, and all I can do is quietly and patiently say, no. Yes to feminism, yes to sex, no to taking the life of a human being. To quote somebody who was, I cheerfully admit, much braver than myself, and who had to stand up to much fiercer opponents: Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders.
Similarly with the HHS mandate. For me, and for many others on this side of the question, opposing the HHS mandate is not about bullying women or putting them down. It is — really — about religious liberty. There are some people on my side of this particular debate who may indeed have agendas that I disagree with, and proponents of the mandate may worry about giving those people a “win.” But I ask the mandate proponents to take a fresh look at the issue, and divide the question before us from all the subsequent “agenda items” they fear. A good way of looking at this is by analogy to another religious-liberty controversy. Should Muslims be allowed to build a mosque in Lower Manhattan? I think the Constitution is pretty clear on the religious-liberty right to build houses of worship. So what would we think of someone who believed that we should oppose the mosque because it would be a “win” for Muslims? What’s more important — the principle of religious liberty, or the fear that someone you don’t like might have a “win”? Here, too, we can draw principled distinctions of the kind I made in the last paragraph: No to terrorism, no to forcing people to live under sharia, yes to the religious liberty to build a house of worship.
I saw a poll recently that said that even 57 percent of Catholics don’t think religious liberty is under threat in the U.S. (vs. 38 percent who said it was). I am not especially worried about that number, because this issue will probably be settled in the courts rather than by polls. (And what will the courts do? Kathryn Lopez recently pointed out how clear Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on the issue of mandates that violate religious liberty. Ginsburg, in her Obamacare concurrence: “A mandate to purchase a particular product would be unconstitutional if, for example, the edict impermissibly abridged the freedom of speech, interfered with the free exercise of religion, or infringed on a liberty interest protected by the Due Process Clause.”) No, I point out that poll number merely to reassure HHS-mandate supporters that there is not, behind the anti-mandate effort, a juggernaut headed straight for their freedoms. When even most Catholics don’t obey Catholic teaching on contraception (and aren’t that worried about the HHS mandate, either), how likely is it that they or anyone else will ever take away your contraceptives, or interfere with your sex life in any other way?
Clearly, the “other agendas” that mandate supporters fear are far from imminent. So I urge them to look again at the HHS mandate, and look at it in isolation from other concerns real and imagined. I have come to the conclusion that the HHS mandate is an undue burden on religious liberty — telling people to pay for something that’s against their religious convictions. If more people ignore the baggage and the bogeymen, maybe they will come to the same conclusion.