Over the Counter and Round the Bend

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Sometimes pro-lifers disagree with one another. That’s the irenic note on which Steven Mosher opens a post at the conservative Catholic website Crisis. He then proceeds to tell other pro-lifers that they’re going to Hell.

The main target of his bull is Barbara Comstock, a pro-life candidate for the U.S. House. Mosher claims that Comstock has betrayed Catholic teaching and, in a truly low blow, compares her to Vice President Joe Biden. And I’m not overstating when I say he suggests she is risking Hell, an idea to which he repeatedly returns. Her offense? Saying that the government should make access to oral contraception easier by allowing it to be sold over the counter.

I can’t imagine that this attack will have much effect on the race. Because I think Comstock is right on this issue, though, I’ll take the bait.

Contrary to Mosher’s diatribe, Catholic teaching does not hold that citizens or politicians are obligated to support laws to make contraceptives less accessible, or to oppose laws that make them more accessible. Catholics are not obligated to seek their prohibition. (Is Mosher seeking that? If not, doesn’t his argument mean that he is “compromising” Church teachings and risking damnation?) We are not obligated to demand heavy taxes on them. We are not obligated to insist that some of them should require a prescription.

Comstock has made a prudential judgment about what the right policy should be. A faithful Catholic may in good conscience reasonably believe that making oral contraception available over the counter won’t do much to increase the use of contraception. (It’s not as though the prescription regime has done much to discourage it or exists for that purpose.) Over-the-counter sales are less likely to be covered by insurance, so Catholics and others who object to contraception would be less likely to end up paying for it if her policy were followed. Politically, her position also makes it easier to resist the Obama administration’s attempt to coerce coverage of contraception in insurance plans.

If Mosher reaches different judgments, fine. They don’t make him a better Catholic, or pro-lifer, than people who disagree. His post, indeed, strikes me as the very opposite of a model of how Catholics should discuss politics and policy.