Religious Freedom and Birth Control: A Reflection

It is now a common occurrence: some religious organization claims that by being required to provide birth control, their ability to practice their religion is inhibited because doing so rubs against their religious beliefs. What follows are some thoughts I have floating in my head about this issue.

What Are These Exemptions?

Religious accommodations are usually granted to individuals within an organization. What these organizations ask for amounts to a communal religious accommodation. This is significant. The impact of communal accommodations will naturally extend beyond that of an individual’s exemption. In particular, it will affect people who are both directly and indirectly associated with the organization, by which I mean this: a married woman will not only be affected by the organization’s refusal to provide birth control. Her husband will be, too. Furthermore, depending on the couple’s financial circumstances, it might affect other members of the family at large.

Some Ethical Issues

It’s worth wondering whether imposing the requirement to provide birth control, for example, truly amounts to an inhibition upon the person’s ability to practice their religion. There’s no sense in which this requirement would stop a Catholic from going to Mass on Sunday, accepting Communion, praying, etc.

What’s going on instead is a violation of conscience. That is, they are forced to do something they feel is wrong in virtue of their religious beliefs. Furthermore, it could be that the individuals employed by the organization not only feel it’s wrong for them to use birth control, but feel it’s wrong to enable others to do the same insofar as doing so is within their immediate power.

In terms of how we commonly understand the phenomenon of conscience violation, this isn’t strange. If one believes murder is wrong, they would certainly be violating their conscience if they enabled someone to commit homicide. The same can be said for a person who believes birth control is wrong. If avoiding violating their religiously-influenced conscience is indeed integral to their ability to practice their religion, then it seems the requirement to provide birth control amounts to an inhibition.

Even if we were to admit that conscience violation does amount to an inhibition against practicing their religion, we do not thereby have a reason to exempt religious organizations (or organizations that honor/promote certain religious values) from providing birth control to employees or beneficiaries (e.g. people who live in shelters). For example, suppose the CEO of some business belonged to a religion that required them to make job candidates fight to the death in order to determine who should be employed. Imposing legal penalties upon said person would inhibit their ability to fully practice their religion, but surely such restrictions are legally and morally warranted. This makes it clear that violation of conscience does not always amount to a good reason to allow an exemption.

The question is whether or not the violation of conscience involved in providing someone with birth control is something worth protecting, morally speaking. I think there are three serious problems involved.

  1. The single act of preventing someone from obtaining birth control inhibits them from exercising their own judgment in a very significant area of their lives. Their autonomy, in other words, is restricted to some degree. If autonomy is considered a moral good, preventing someone from obtaining birth control would amount to a moral wrong.
  2. The effect this prevention might have on people’s lives is also worth considering. Given the effectiveness of man-made prophylactics, and the relative ineffectiveness of methods such as ‘rhythm’ and ‘pulling out’, couples will always run a huge risk whenever they have sex without access to synthetic measures. Someone could always counter, “well, don’t have sex unless you’re planning on having a baby”, but as anyone who’s ever had sex knows, that’s both difficult to do and entails harmful consequences for the couple’s relationship. Furthermore, the financial consequences for the couple, their extended family, and even the child could be horrendous given the right circumstances.
  3. Is it reasonable to expect someone who doesn’t share in your religious convictions to act in a way consistent with said convictions? It doesn’t seem like it. From the non-believer’s standpoint, they have no reason to do so simply because they don’t subscribe to your beliefs. This isn’t to say there isn’t any objective reason for them to do so, merely that they do not see any such reasons. Put another way, if they believe there are objective reasons to act in a certain way, they do not believe those reasons entail refraining from using birth control. Thus, they cannot be expected, practically speaking, to act in a way entailed by some other set of reasons. Is it morally permissible to force someone to act in a way contrary to the reasons they recognize? In cases such as murder, of course. However, in cases like these it’s less clear. The two problems cited above might lead us to answer “no”.

Some Social & Political Issues

We’ve already noted that, refusing to do provide birth control impinges upon the self-determination of others. In other words, exercising one’s religious beliefs, in this case, necessarily entails inhibiting others from determining the course of at least one significant part of their lives. One might then wonder if we have crossed a line from protecting religious beliefs to enabling their enforcement upon those who do not ascent to those beliefs. In fact, I believe it is fairly clear that this is exactly what’s happening, at least in a limited sense.

In permitting those who believe that birth control is sinful to not give it to their employees, they make at least some employees behave as if they also believed in birth control’s sinfulness. This is enough to warrant the charge that a certain set of religious beliefs are being enforced. After all, when a state forces its citizens to practice a certain religion, that is what’s happening: they are forcing people to act as if they believed certain things. Hence, it’s the case that exempting an organization from providing birth control on religious grounds is actually an act of enforcing some religious belief.

Exempting certain organizations from providing birth control to employees or immediate beneficiaries on religious grounds also clashes with America’s professed story about personhood. Adhering to liberalism, Americans see themselves as individuals first and foremost. Among other things, this means they have the ability and right to make their own decisions. As such, adhering to the requirements or beliefs of any given group is up to them, and not the group itself. Taking this into consideration, it’s easy to see how the case we’ve been considering clashes with the story we tell about people. In permitting certain organizations to withhold birth control on religious grounds, we effectively deny individuals the ability to partake in America’s professed story about personhood in at least one area of their lives. This means they are denied the right to self-determination that they supposedly have under America’s philosophical narrative. Put another way, these organizations are given permission to undermine America’s professed story about personhood, at least in a limited sense. Given our judicial system’s long-standing stare decicis tradition, that is troubling indeed; setting up this kind of legal precedent could have significant consequences for the future.

I’ll likely add more to this later, and make it a little bit easier to understand, too. In the meantime, for those of you who were able to track with me, what do you think of all this? Do you have any criticisms or anything you’d like to add? Comments are always welcome!