The HHS Mandate and Moral Reasoning

If you haven’t heard about the Obama Administration’s recent, controversial Department of Health and Human Services mandate that employer covered insurance plans fully cover contraception (including abortifacients), and sterilization, then you must have had your head in the figurative sand. The religious liberty of Catholic institutions and other groups that oppose these products and services are threatened by it, and the implications for religious freedom in the future, if this mandate holds, are frankly frightening. It is no wonder that many forms of resistance to this mandate have cropped up almost overnight, including a coordinated effort by the United States Catholic Bishops. It is a direct attack against the “free exercise” clause of the first amendment of the Constitution.

What I want to accomplish by this post is to inject a bit of clarity into the argument that is going on all over the blogosphere and on facebook pages. Many who support the mandate, as well as some who oppose it, don’t seem to have an adequate grasp of what good moral reasoning looks like. Many defenders are obscuring the matter by simply re-describing what it is that is going on here, and sometimes the ‘opposers’ respond in such a way that it could look like they are offering merely their own ‘re-description’ in response. We need to be clear in our descriptions. What seems to be at the heart of the matter is recognizing what is chosen in particular actions and who is responsible for them.

Example #1: Many are claiming that for an institution to provide contraception coverage to its employees is the same thing, morally speaking, to that institution providing a salary that could be used or not used to purchase contraception. But on the contrary, good moral reasoning recognizes the difference between paying a salary and paying a premium on specified products and services. An employer pays a salary to an employee and is responsible for that salary; what the employee does with it is ultimately a matter of his own choice and responsibility. An employer provides an employee with a health insurance policy; the products and services included in that policy are the employers responsibility, and the use of them are the responsibility of the employee.

Example #2: Many are claiming that for the Church to refuse to provide contraception coverage to its employees is to force its religious beliefs on them. This one is an especially bizarre distortion of reality. Again, good moral reasoning recognizes the difference between choosing to force someone to comply with religious practices against their will, and choosing not to pay for another person to obtain specified products and services which one opposes because of ones religious beliefs. To paint it differently is to arbitrarily re-describe what is actually going on. Here’s an illustrative example I used in the combox of another blog:

Let’s say, for example, that my daughter asked me to pay for any contraception she might want to buy. Would it be immoral for me to refuse to do so? Of course not! I should not be forced to pay for something that I morally oppose. She would be wrong to expect me to do so, and if she respected my conscience she would not press the matter. On the other hand, she would be free to obtain it by other means, and, if she was no longer a child, I would be wrong to try to stop her (aside from trying to persuade her in a respectful manner).

See my point?

We have to stop letting ourselves put ‘spin’ on our moral evaluations of the actions of those we disagree with. We need to think clearly and without partiality. We have to stop conflating what is actually done and chosen with the effects or outcome. We have to fight the impulse to ‘re-describe’ what it is that others actually do, in order to prop up our own viewpoints or political parties. If we don’t intentionally commit ourselves to clear-thinking and fairness in argument, we will continue to find ourselves obscuring the truth rather than shedding light on it. Without these virtues, anything is for grabs and politics becomes no longer a matter of persuasion but of manipulation of opinion through media selectivity and repetition.


The Church isn’t asking for the right to fire an employee for missing Mass on Sunday or for coveting his neighbor’s wife. It just doesn’t want its institutions to be legally required to pay for acts that it considers immoral … This isn’t the equivalent of a hypothetical Muslim hospital demanding, say, that all its employees permanently abstain from pork and alcohol and premarital sex. It’s the equivalent of a hypothetical Muslim hospital declining to stock Playboy in its gift shop, or serve pork and alcohol in its cafeteria.

– Ross Douthat, NY Times, Liberals and Catholic Hospitals


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