Why the Catholic Contraception Controversy Is So American

Politically speaking, the contraception controversy is a quirk of the way we pay for healthcare.

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It seems to me that the furor over the Obama administration's birth control coverage mandate is uniquely American. And by that I don't mean to imply that Americans, or American Catholics in particular, are somehow benighted or behind the times.

What I mean is that there's a reason we don't, to my knowledge, see Catholic bishops protesting insurance coverage for contraception anywhere else in the developed world.

The Catholic Church, of course, is no more lenient on the issue of contraception in other countries; its moral opposition to birth control is universal. The reason we don't see protest elsewhere is because in countries with socialized medicine or single-payer insurance systems, subsidies for contraception are, in effect, laundered.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

If, say, a Catholic Frenchman opposed paying for someone else's birth control on grounds of his right of conscience, it would seem as quixotic as an American pacifist decrying the use of his taxes to support war in Afghanistan.

Noah Millman, the liberal voice at the American Conservative, makes the incisive point that, in reforming the U.S. healthcare system, President Obama chose, for reasons of prudence and political culture, to incrementally build on the current system of private insurance, rather than rebuild from scratch. But by pursuing the less-radical alternative, the administration ends up looking more coercive at the micro level, where employers see contraception not as something universally accessible but as a line-item on an individual health plan.

I don't mean to trivialize the objections of my Catholic brothers and sisters, but, politically speaking, this controversy is a quirk of the way we pay for healthcare.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should Catholic and Other Religious Institutions Have to Cover Birth Control?]

I'll repeat what I've argued earlier: Opponents of the mandate are strategically obscuring moral objections (to which they have every right to assert) on the procedural playing field of the neutral liberal state.

Patrick Deneen, the Catholic theorist, lets slip the mask by passionately opposing the mandate for reasons far more comprehensive than the free and private exercise of religion:

The response of American Catholics to the HHS mandate has (perhaps necessarily) been framed in dominantly liberal terms that give it a chance of receiving a hearing in today's public sphere and within its Courts. But it should be acknowledged (as the response to the “Compromise” reveals) that the Church will ultimately lose the argument simply due to the fact that the way it is framed already represents a capitulation to liberal premises. ... [T]he real debate is not over religious freedom, in fact: it is over the very nature of humanity and the way in which we order our polities and societies.

Good for Deneen. I wish the bishops had been so forthright.

  • Vote: Does Obama's Contraceptive Compromise Go Far Enough?
  • See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.
  • See a slide show of 10 things that are (and aren’t) in the healthcare bill.