I just saw part of a National Press Club event on C-SPAN in which young Catholics who support contraception spoke out in favor of the Obama administration’s recent proposed rule on insurance coverage. The usual statistics were trotted out, most notably the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who use contraception. I am not interested in contesting these statistics — it’s old news that the vast majority of U.S. Catholics disagree with their church’s official teaching on contraception — but rather the notion that the statistics are relevant to the issue in any moral or legal way. Politically, they may indeed be relevant to the question of which partisan “side” gets a boost from the controversy (a question I am very happy to leave to the political mavens); but they are irrelevant to the issue of whether it’s right or wrong to force a particular employer to pay for a particular product. The idea behind the use of these statistics is to convince people that Catholics don’t really believe in the contraception ban, so it’s no big deal to force some of them who do believe in the ban to pay for contraception.
But this approach betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of human rights — the American understanding of which is not one of “group rights” but one of individual rights. Consider, for example, a handful of local moderate Muslims who want to build a mosque in a particular county. Let’s say, arguendo, that opponents of the mosque conduct a national poll of Muslims, in which it turns out most American Muslims don’t want a mosque built by that small group, some of them because they would rather have a more sharia-compliant, pro-Wahhabi mosque built there. Would that hypothetical national Muslim majority have a right to veto the religious free exercise of that little group of Muslims who want their own mosque? Of course not.
Similarly, think of the famous controversy in the 1940s about the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Pledge of Allegiance. What if a lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses said, “Darn it, we want to say the Pledge of Allegiance, even though the church disapproves!”? Would that make it okay for the state to force the ones who agreed with their church’s teaching to say the Pledge?
The underlying truth here is that in America, it is recognized that one does not have rights because one happens to be a member of a special-interest pressure group: Jehovah’s Witnesses, anti-contraception Catholics, pro-contraception Catholics, Muslims, etc. One has rights because he or she is a human being endowed by the Creator with those rights. How many — or how few — of one’s nominal coreligionists share a particular religious opinion is immaterial.
Rhetoric about a “war on the Church” sends the discussion in this perilous direction of group rights, and thus opens up the field for the “98-percent-of-Catholics-can’t-be-wrong” objection. (“How can it be against ‘the church’ if a vast majority of people in ‘the church’ agree with it?”) This mandate is wrong because it is an offense against the rights of particular Americans who have the same conscience rights as any other Americans. To put it quite simply: In this country, you don’t become “less than” just because the pope puts a miter on your head and a majority of your congregation disagrees with you on something.
(Disclosure: I am neither Catholic nor an opponent of contraception. If any administration tried to take contraception — not a guaranteed third-party subsidy for contraception, mind you, but contraception itself — away from individual Americans, I’d object strongly to that, because I think it would be a tyrannical overreach by an administration unmoored from the sensible principles of limited government. I would ask my fellow supporters of contraception to be equally solicitous of the rights of those who don’t want to pay for contraceptives they believe are forbidden by their faith. Fair’s fair.)