A Real Commitment to Minority Rights Needs a Real Commitment to Freedom

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As a Catholic school kid, my day job for 13 years, I spent many a religion class arguing with a succession of teachers about the flaws in my erstwhile faith's position on contraception. In the years since, as some of my favorite people have gone on to become orthodox Catholics, the friendly debates have been held during dinner parties or long car rides or late-night conversations in backyard jacuzzis, and having heard every imaginable defense of the church, I remain adamant that its position is neither pragmatic nor required by the teachings of Jesus nor desirable. What gets me most agitated is thinking about the needless suffering the faith-based ban on contraception inflicts on the Third World. In the United States, most Catholics just use contraception.

Despite being pro-condom, pro-birth control, and appropriately dubious of "natural family planning," however, I cannot go along with Kevin Drum of Mother Jones when he argues in favor of the Catholic Church being forced to purchase medical insurance that includes contraception (emphasis added):

Unlike abortion, which remains a genuine hot button, contraception simply isn't. Poll after poll shows that the public almost unanimously has no moral objection to contraception, and, by margins of 3- or 4-to-1, believes that insurance ought to cover contraception. This is true even among Catholics. It's almost literally the case that the only remaining objection to contraception in modern American society comes from the tiny, exclusively male group that makes up the church's leadership. If the Catholic hierarchy wants to maintain its barbaric position that contraception is immoral, there's nothing I can do to stop it. But it's a position that maims and kills and immiserates millions throughout the world, and there's simply no reason that a secular government needs to--or should--humor them over this. I don't think the church will stop providing charity care because they object to the contraception rule, but if they do then we'll just have to find others to step in. We're living in the 21st century, and in the 21st century contraception is almost unanimously viewed as morally benign and practically effective. It's a boon, not a curse, and there's simply no reason that a secular government supported by taxpayer dollars should continue to indulge the pretense that it's not.

It would be more accurate to say that a small number of relatively traditional Catholics are the folks for whom contraceptives are a problem. What grates on me is the notion that whether or not the state accommodates this minority group should turn in part on how small a minority they are. Even in instances when I think a government mandate makes sense, I regard it as regrettable if even a single individual feels coerced by it. If the state can reasonably avoid transgressing against the prerogatives of a minority, however small, it damn well ought to do so.

There is no bright-line test for what is "reasonable," or how burdensome an accommodation must be before government should no longer be bound to make it. But this contraception example seems easy. There are very few institutions in America with longstanding, obviously credible moral objections to contraception. Permitting these institutions to purchase health insurance for employees that doesn't include contraception isn't going to meaningfully interfere with the government's ability to shape a functional health-care system. There are, additionally, the consequences for actual employees of institutions like the Catholic Church. Many share the position of their faith: they're morally uncomfortable paying into a health-insurance system that doles out contraception. Other employees don't have any moral objection to contraception; and some presumably want it included in their health plan. Weighing their respective preferences, isn't it reasonable to ask the latter group to buy slightly cheaper health insurance with no contraception, and to spend the savings on birth control or condoms? That certainly seems less burdensome than asking the others to compromise a deeply held moral belief.

This is but one example of my general discomfort with the attitude that both conservatives and progressives take toward minority groups and diversity. Both groups sometimes seek to impose their notions of what society ought to be like on everyone, and cite majority norms or expediency when doing so. I'd like to live in a country that permits gays to marry, though they're a very small percentage of the overall population, even if a utilitarian calculus alone doesn't necessarily compel their inclusion in the institution of marriage. If pre-op transsexuals want to choose which bathroom they want to use, I'm all for it. Addressing climate change by banning certain kinds of light bulbs or automobiles seems needlessly coercive to me -- for some people, incandescents or impractical sports cars are the thing they like most - whereas a carbon tax is a means to the same end that doesn't impose the majority's tastes on select minority groups.

Some people feel blissfully at one with nature on nude beaches. So we should have some of those. Some people have made an informed decision that drinking raw milk is worth the risks. The FDA ought to stop harassing them. There are always going to be accommodations the government can't reasonably make. We shouldn't let British immigrants drive on the side of the road they prefer, or care for the needy with social insurance schemes that permit anyone to opt out. But school choice? Or the freedom to smoke marijuana in one's own home? Or to consume trans fats? If you aren't willing to accommodate people with those preferences you've got an insufficient commitment to diversity, or an incomplete understanding of what the word means. 

Generally, it is a subset of tradition-minded conservatives who have an insufficient commitment to diversity; and it is a nannyish subset of progressives who laud diversity without grasping that truly embracing it requires accommodating parents who want to teach their children about sex education in grade 8 rather than grade 5, entrepreneurs who want to braid hair without attending an expensive beautician school, and neighborhoods that want their farmer's market to feature baked goods prepared in the home kitchens, despite the minimal additional risk that entails. What I'd encourage is constant awareness that people have different values, morals, priorities, preferences, and approaches to pursuing happiness -- an attitude that leads folks to happily accommodate diversity when possible, and to be regretful and limit the magnitude of coercion when it is necessary.

Neither conservatives nor progressives care enough about what diversity truly means: tolerating values and preferences that differ from their own.american map full.jpg
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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