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Obama, religious liberty, and contraception

Some of my conservative friends have challenged me to take a position on President Obama's rule that religiously affiliated organizations must provide contraception coverage as part of the health insurance they provide employees.

Truth be told, I've been torn.

On the one hand, I'm a big believer in religious liberty. E.J. Dionne—no squishy liberal—makes a lot of sense to me when he upbraids the Obama Administration for its choice. He wrote: "Speaking as a Catholic, I wish the church would be more open on the contraception question. But speaking as an American liberal who believes that religious pluralism imposes certain obligations on government, I think the church’s leaders had a right to ask for broader relief from a contraception mandate that would require it to act against its own teachings. The administration should have done more to balance the competing liberty interests here."

On the other hand, I believe that women have a right to contraception and to make their own choices about their health care—and that's a choice effectively denied many women if their employer's health coverage won't cover contraception. Charlie Pierce makes this case more pungently than I would, but he's succinct: "Of course, you're not a Dominican Episcopalian making $16,000 a year cleaning bedpans in a Catholic hospital who can't afford the $600 a month co-pay for the birth control she needs to control her heavy bleeding and yet who, through no fault of her own, finds that she has to live with the theological horse-pucky of Humanae Vitae as enshrined as an 'exemption' in American secular law."

Right. And actually, that highlights the real problem here: ObamaCare is kind of a mess.

There were always going to be conservatives who protested universal health care as a tyrannical threat to liberty. But the way the law actually has been implemented—between this rule and the individual mandate that forces individuals to buy health coverage—seems designed to make many Americans feel like conservatives were right.

It is too late to re-fight this battle. But...

We'd be avoiding a lot (not all) of these problems if we simply had a single-payer system provided by the government. Since that seems to be politically untenable—since the preservation of private health insurance companies was apparently a major goal of the process that created the Affordable Care Act—the next best choice would've been a "public option"—a cheap government-run insurance option to stand right beside private options in the marketplace. Either option would've given folks an easy way to obtain the coverage they needed or wanted without trampling on the consciences of their employers. Despite the rhetoric of the right, the government-centric options are those which would've been most compatible with the interests of liberty.

That's what I wish would've happened. That's what I wish would happen still. But we're years away from such developments—if not decades. And we have to decide what to do with the laws we have now.

And ultimately, I have to come down—somewhat reluctantly—on the side of the Obama Administration. Not because I don't believe in religious liberty—but because I believe that in weighing the competing claims, I must side with individuals over institutions. It is not optimum for the federal government to require Catholic charities to go against their conscience. But it is even less optimum, I think, for the government to stand back and let Big Religious Institutions make that choice for their employees.

If those employees do not want contraception, they do not have to obtain it. No harm done. But if they want or need it, they won't have the choice denied them by their employer. Individual choice is preserved.

I know that some of my conservative friends will A) be disappointed in me and B) point out the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, while it does not confer a positive right to cheap contraception. I don't have a good answer to that objection, frankly. But if it is wrong for government to override the consciences of individuals, I'm not sure it's much more correct to let non-governmental institutions do so. Both have immense power over the lives over the lives of individuals.

Again, we wouldn't be having quite this argument if government were providing the insurance instead of requiring others to provide or obtain it. (I have no doubt there'd be spectacular fireworks over whether government-run insurance would cover abortions and the like, however.) But this is where we're at. And the Obama Administration's ruling is the best of several bad choices.

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