While I consider myself more of a moderate than a liberal, I do find myself a little left of center on many of the social issues on which I formerly was firmly on the right wing. I will make no secret of my desire to see contraception as freely available as possible to any and all, just as readily available as clean water. As to the details of how to achieve this, I have no firm position, as long as effective contraception is, to repeat, as readily available as clean water is in developed nations. I don't care whether the government provides it, or nongovernmental organizations, or charities, or insurers, or churches, but let's do our society a favor and not put any obstacle whatsoever in the way of preventing unintended pregnancies. Motherhood is difficult enough for mothers who want to have children, let alone for those who didn't plan to have them. Childhood and indeed life in general are difficult enough for all of us, let alone for those who are unwanted by their parents. I recognize that for some, life is a gift from God to be honored above all else, even life that's "unwanted." It's tempting for those who view life in this way to put the quotes around "unwanted," leading to a judgement that no life is really "unwanted" and opposing the widest possible distribution of contraceptives.
Even the slightest obstacle to accessing effective contraception can and does lead to higher rates of unintended pregnancies and abortions. Higher rates of unintended pregnancies lead to higher rates of poverty, which in turn lead to higher pregnancy rates and greater numbers of welfare-dependent children and mothers. If we want to lower the rate of abortion and reduce the number of welfare recipients, then providing long-term, free, and readily accessible birth control can only help. Ironically, based on studies showing a significant decline in abortions as birth control is made more freely available, it would appear that contributing to Planned Parenthood is among the most effective ways to prevent abortions. Read the article; you'll be surprised.
The Catholic Church insists it's not wanting to outlaw contraception. I accept that. The Church merely wants to have the freedom not to violate its conscience, not to have to pay for something it considers immoral on religious grounds. I fully understand and appreciate this argument. The conservatives who stand in support of the Church have shouted this many times, and I get it. I also understand that, even if the Church (by which I mean the priestly hierarchy of the Catholic Church, not its laity at large) is not seeking to outlaw contraception, it nevertheless has a vision opposite from mine as stated above, a vision in which contraception does not flow as plentifully as clean water, a vision in which the lack of contraception would make couples pause before having casual sex, a vision in which non-procreative ("unnatural") sex doesn't happen.
So we're stuck with two competing visions: one in which contraception flows like water, preventing as many unwanted pregnancies as possible (after all, people are going to continue having sex, whether or not contraception is freely available), and another in which contraception is not made freely available to all, since those (like Catholic employers) who would otherwise be in a position to provide the contraception are unwilling to do so for the sake of religious conscience. Both visions are thus frustrated by the other, leaving both only partially fulfilled and leading to the unpleasant debates and the talking-past-each-other syndrome we've witnessed in the past few months.
Is freedom of religion absolute? Is a pacifist Quaker or Mennonite free from her obligation to pay federal taxes, simply because some of those tax revenues are used to fund military spending that violates her religious conscience? Is a Jehovah's Witness free on religious grounds to deny a life-saving blood transfusion to his child? What if the leader of a new cult were to decide that it's the will of the gods to drive on the left side of the road, and that anyone who drives on the right side of the road is accursed of the gods? Or what if an atheist were to object to being pressed into service to fight in what he considered an unjust war, a war his conscience couldn't support? Does he have to be religious in order for his freedom of conscience to be respected by the government? If so, does that not represent a privileging of the religious over the nonreligious?
Surely we can all recognize that not all claims to religious liberty should be automatically respected. Yet I do want to live in a society where freedom of conscience--religious or otherwise--is taken seriously, and I have no desire to tread on Catholic conscience merely for the sake of sticking my finger in the eye of religion. Again, I don't know the best way to accomplish my vision--whether through public or private channels--but I do wish to impress on as many minds as possible that this vision is in the best interest of mothers who aren't ready to have another child, of children who grow up unwanted, of overtaxed government welfare rolls, and of those who wish to see a decline in the rate of abortion. From my (admittedly limited) vantage point, whether Catholics realize it or not, readily accessible birth control is in the best interest of our society, just as, whether Quakers realize it or not, an adequate defense is in the best interest of our nation. Both an adequate defense and freely available contraceptives have to be paid for somehow. Is there a difference between requiring Quakers to help fund the military and requiring Catholics, however indirectly, to support freely available contraception? If there is a significant difference, I welcome feedback from my readers.