Some brief thoughts on Friday’s decision by the Obama Administration to require contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans:
1. Personal control over one’s body is an essential pre-condition of ethical behavior, and reproduction is one of the most important and private aspects of bodily function any person has. It is not for either states or corporations to decide this for the individual, either by prohibiting them from or coercing them into reproduction against their will.
2. Human life is an end in itself,and should therefore never be treated as a means towards any other end. In this instance, however, religious groups opposed to birth control, and which may pressure insurers not to provide or employers not to purchase contraceptive coverage for workers are backhandedly using the threat of conceiving a human life as a consequence for sexual behavior which does not conform to that religious group’s beliefs.
3. Closely related to #2 is the issue of collective punishment, in which the child who is conceived bears the consequences of the “improper” sexual behavior as well as the parent who would potentially be deprived of access to contraception. There is significant data which shows that unwanted children suffer disproportionately throughout their lives compared with children whose parents welcomed their births. Realizing this, it is grossly unfair to inflict such a life upon the child who has done nothing but be born.
4. The government has a public health interest in making sure that insurance products contain a minimum of protections for consumers. Allowing an insurer to offer a plan without contraceptive coverage would be like allowing the manufacture and sale of automobiles without seat belts. The potential damage to the consumer in both cases outweighs the rights of companies to treat these safety elements as optional in their products.
5. Closely related to both #3 and 4, the government has a financial interest in making sure that insurance products contain a minimum of protections for consumers.
A) The government subsidizes healthcare benefits for the vast majority of those who have insurance by treating it as non-taxable compensation. Both employers and employees save a great deal of money in this way. It is this fact which undermines any attempt to evade the requirement to provide contraceptive coverage in an insurance plan on the grounds of religious conviction: once you take money from the government in a particular transaction you lose whatever independence you might have otherwise had within your religious tradition to opt out of this or that provision and then become subject to the government’s standards. It doesn’t mean that the religious conviction isn’t valid, but it does mean that the government has to answer why the religious conviction of one group should be allowed to compromise the well-being of some of its citizens, particularly when it is subsidizing that religious group’s activities.
B) The government also has a financial interest because of what happens to the lives of the children who are unwanted. The costs to society greatly exceeds that of their wanted counterparts from birth to death, whether it be in education, health, housing or corrections. The government has the moral responsibility to care for such persons whether anyone wants them or not, but prudence would dictate that whatever could be done to minimize this happening to children ought to be done. Making contraception available to women of child-bearing age, particularly the economically disadvantaged, is an important step in that direction.
Lastly, Obama’s health care plan will come online in 2014, which means that the August 1, 2013 deadline for religious organization to comply with this requirement should clear up the conscience question for those who will refuse to comply. At that time, employers could drop coverage, sending their workers to the healthcare exchanges where they could purchase insurance themselves. It will cost hospitals more, since they will have to increase workers wages to allow them to pay for what they have to buy and these wages will be subject to payroll taxes, paid by both the hospital and employee, but hospitals’ consciences will be clear.