Individuals should take precedence over institutions when it comes to a health matter like contraception

Is it a matter of women’s rights or is it a matter of religious freedom?

That question has grown to become one of the major concerns of the mainstream news media since the Obama Administration mandated that contraception be covered in all health insurance policies. 

The answer to this question of definition determines where you stand on what the Obama Administration did:  If you think we’re talking about women’s rights, then you likely believe the Obama Administration did the right thing.  If you think we’re talking about religious freedom, you likely believe it’s illegal for the Obama Administration to make Catholic organizations cover birth control in health insurance policies they offer employees.  Look at the coverage in Google News and you’ll see that Democrats, women’s organizations and progressives such as Rachel Maddow are talking about women’s rights and Republicans and right-wing pundits like Rush Limbaugh are talking about religious freedom.

Both sides have a point.

So what do we do when two fundamental rights come into conflict?

We could go with majority rules. An overwhelming majority of Americans have used birth control, support birth control and think that health insurance should cover it. In fact , as Gail Collins, Rachel Maddow and others have pointed out, two-thirds of Catholic women currently use birth control and virtually all have used some form of birth control at some point in their lives.  The surveys show that the only group among Americans in which a majority is not in favor of birth control is the right-wing Christian evangelical movement, which unfortunately now sets policy for one of our only two political parties and thereby defines the terms of virtually every debate involving social issues in the United States.

Even including the overly loud voice of the Protestant right, majority rules would dictate that the Obama Administration made the right move.

Of course, at the heart of the very idea of rights is the principle that the majority can’t bully a minority.  But in this case it’s a minority wanting to bully the majority. 

Both those who are in favor of all health insurance policies covering contraceptives for women and those against it focus their attention on individual institutions or persons.  They often forget to mention the third party in the discussion, and that’s society.

As a matter of public policy, the government is charged with securing the public health.  We can judge success in this matter by the health of our citizens and by the funds we must allocate for health care.  As measured by people or by money, there can be no doubt that contraceptives help to promote a healthier society.  Birth control prevents two major factors in healthcare costs: unwanted pregnancies and venereal diseases. Birth control also leads to fewer abortions. 

When the government considers public policy issues, it often has to weigh conflicting rights.  Some examples include water rights policies, environmental standards, rules for eminent domain actions and product safety standards.

In the case of covering contraception, the public policy decision looks like a no brainer: something that serves the public interest by leading to a healthier population and lower health costs is supported by an overwhelming majority of citizens.  The policy favors a right central to the lives of individuals versus the right of an institution to avoid paying for something considered standard by most individuals and institutions.

I don’t believe there is any religious freedom involved in setting a standard for public health, which is all the Obama Administration did. In fact, a decision to exempt religious organizations might have infringed on the religious freedom of the women using birth control. 

But even if a religious freedom were involved, it would be superseded by public policy, just as the right to marry more than one woman was superseded by public policy in the last century, and just as the right to believe in the power of prayer ends as a matter of law and public policy when parents deny medical treatment to a child for religious reasons.

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