Amidst the almost-endless discussion of religious freedom and contraception recently, one fact has been left out: that most Catholics (and everyone else) already pay for other peoples’ birth control, and will continue to do so regardless of whatever accommodation or legislation ends up passing.
Why? Because Medicaid, through federal and state tax dollars, covers prescription contraception in at least 40 states. According to a 2009 Kaiser/George Washington University study, 40 states (possibly more, as seven did not respond to the survey) provide various forms of contraception to women. Despite conservatives’ ferocious arguments that requiring one individual or group to pay for someone else’s contraceptives is a new and dangerous precedent, this has been the status quo for years, with virtually no objection.
The reason is that arguing against government funding of contraception would reveal the impaired logic behind conservatives’ broader complaint that Obama wanted, in the melodramatic words of a Heritage Foundation blogger, “Two Centuries of Religious Freedom Rolled Back.” Because once you argue that taxpayers should not have to pay for things they morally object to, there would be nothing left to tax.
For instance: Many religions have strong pacifist traditions, including Jainism, the Quakers, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While we’ve granted members of religions like these conscientious objector status, no one has ever seriously advocated that they should be able to opt out of paying taxes that fund the military (and can you imagine a Republican doing so?). Scientologists don’t believe in psychiatry, and yet their tax dollars fund psychiatric research, and psychiatric care in hospitals and other places. Should they get an exemption as well? Jews who keep Kosher nonetheless have to pay taxes that will be used to subsidize animal products they believe violate their scripture. Is their religious freedom being violated too? This road leads quickly to absurdity.
Conservatives and Catholic organizations would likely have one response to this line of argument, and it brings me to the title of this post. They would argue that paying an insurance company that then distributes contraceptives is far more direct than paying tax dollars into one general pot that’s used for everything. It’s a fair point. But it’s a point that implies the opposite of what these same pundits argued during the health-care reform debate—it implies that health care, including contraception, should be a societal concern. We should all pay into it, and receive benefits dictated by consensus reflected through government, not by the unique moral and religious concerns of whoever happens to be our employer.
To put it a different way, a single-payer system would have much the same effect that the tradition of loading blank cartridges into random rifles in a firing squad had: diffusion of responsibility and plausible deniability. Each person could think that his or her money wasn’t being used in a way they didn’t approve of, whether it was birth control or anything else. Further, we could debate what should be covered as a society, rather than as balkanized interest groups.
Single-payer won’t be implemented in the near future, and conservatives will probably continue to demagogue this issue. But it’s worth remembering, whenever “religious freedom,” is invoked, that we all pay for things we don’t believe in; that’s living in a democracy.