Contraception and Religious Liberty

Reproductive organsYet another response to Ambrose, whose blog doesn’t like that my comments tend to have more than 4,000 characters... He says:

"the underlying argument is that religious freedom is not absolute in the US. There have been Supreme Court cases, such as not allowing polygamy, where it has been limited."

Yes, all freedoms have limitations, which is not a big deal. In the case of religious freedom though, religious people in my experience tend to believe that it means that if their holy book mandates something, it should trump the laws of the state, or that no new law can go against what they believe. This would of course be impossible except in a single-religion theocracy (which eliminates entirely everyone's religious freedom of course). I've written extensively on the subject already so I won't add too much on this here.

"any limitation on our First Amendment right to free exercise of religion should ideally find its justification in the Constitution itself (such as the right to life) or clearly in natural law."

The Supreme Court disagrees with this, as in the specific case of polygamy that Ambrose mentions, it said:

"laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices."

In other words, religious freedom is not a license to act as your book tells you. We should all be glad about that, otherwise people would get punished for apostasy or other imaginary crimes (let's not forget that religions themselves impose the strictest limitations on religious freedom, ironically).

But there are a lot more assertions in Ambrose’s post that I find objectionable. For instance:

"nobody is making me work for [Mormon employers]"

Well, Ambrose has a great privilege, which is to choose where he works. Unfortunately the majority of people in this country have no such choice and accept the jobs they can get. Does he really think that the 16% of Americans who have no health insurance deliberately chose to work a job with no coverage? That they could just have chosen to work where they would get great dental as part of the deal? Come on.

It should be mentioned that it’s not the employer that would have to pay for contraception (which I personally regret), so its religious freedom is hardly touched, even with Ambrose’s liberal definition of it:

"if a woman works for a religious employer with objections to providing contraceptive services as part of its health plan, the religious employer will not be required to provide, pay for or refer for contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to directly offer her contraceptive care free of charge."

Ambrose also makes a reference to Planned Parenthood that I find interesting, knowing the campaign of hate that has been unleashed against this institution by the religious right:

Even if we were to agree that contraception should be considered "health care," it is widely freely available through other means via organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Beyond the scare quotes, is he saying that he would advocate for better Planned Parenthood funding?

"All you have to do to avoid it is, duh, not have sex. So if someone is in a position where they it (sic) would negatively impact her health to become pregnant, she doesn't need expensive drugs or procedures to help her with that. Just don't have sex while you're fertile."

Now when comparing the efficacy of contraception methods, one must take into account user failures. Condoms for example (that Ambrose seems to be advocating for, which comes as a surprise to me) are fairly efficient if used properly, but the problem is that they often aren't. The method that he advocate for (sympto-thermal) is way worse. When properly applied, it is efficient (so is complete abstinence), but it still has a catastrophic overall failure rate, comparable to coitus interruptus. Recommending this when we have much better options is just irresponsible. Also, what can Ambrose possibly imply by:

"It's homeopathic! It's organic! It's all natural! It's great!"

Homeopathy is a demonstrated scam, and arsenic is natural too, so I don't see a good argument there.

"let's not forget that STDs are a serious problem, right?"

Yes, they are, but there doesn't seem to be a link between contraception and risk-taking (I'm not a MD but the research that I did in the literature indicates the contrary is true).

If Ambrose is sincere about limiting the spread of STDs, it seems his best weapon would be comprehensive sex education. Would that go against religious freedom?

"Preventing pregnancy is not analogous to preventing disease."

No it’s not, but pregnancy does have a huge impact on women's health. Limiting unintended pregnancy was in fact one of the major factors of progress during the 20th century. It reduced infant and maternal mortality rates, limited the spread of STDs and gave many women better opportunities to contribute to society. In turn, we know that empowering women is the single most efficient factor of human progress. Oh, and also, contraception is a great way to limit the number of abortion, whether those are legal or not.

Of course all that is not even touching on the right of women to enjoy sex without becoming pregnant (a right that men have been enjoying since... forever).

"If people feel strongly that all women should have access to contraception, I suggest that they coordinate and fund clinics and the like who can provide it. Or heck, they can just create a fund to cover it for the women who work for Catholic agencies. We don't need the government to mandate violation of the First Amendment to achieve their ends."

So now we have to pay for the shortcomings of Catholics? It so happens that the 99% of Americans who use or have used contraception do feel that women should have access to contraception (and they are right), and they did coordinate and fund organizations that can provide it. They did it by electing governments that advanced our society and provided Planned Parenthood, among other things.

We all pay for things we disagree with, through taxes and other means. Well, tough. For what it's worth, I'd like to get my Iraq war money back, but that's not going to happen, is it?

Archived comments

  • Piotr Szmyd said on Thursday, March 8, 2012

    Couldn't agree more. I'd like to add one thing, as a soon-to-become MD;) There is a myth about hormonal contraception being a *huge* risk-factor of thrombosis. It was true with old, first generation drugs having high hormone doses. It's hardly true with the new drugs, commonly used today (risk factor of 0,016%, as opposed to eg. 0,06% in normal pregnancy!). In addition, there is a huge list of advantages eg. lowering the risk of different types of cancer, that overcome possible risk a number of times. So the conclusion would be that prohibiting the use of hormonal contraception means in fact putting women in risk of more serious diseases. Bastards.