Catholic Church: Freedom of conscience is under assault

  • Article by: STEPHEN J. HEANEY
  • Updated: November 18, 2011 - 6:51 PM

Here's the logic behind the Catholic bishops' fight against contraception rule.

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It was Opposite Day. You know -- that children's game when words mean their opposites for the day?

That is the only charitable explanation I can imagine for state Sen. Scott Dibble's recent attack on Catholic bishops ("The battle of church and state: Catholic bishops assault health and common sense," Nov. 16).

Assuming he was serious, however, let me address just two of his upside-down claims.

Claim 1 -- that abortion and contraception are health care: Medicine is about restoring people to health. Abortion destroys a living human being. Contraception, when it works, prevents pregnancy.

Pregnancy is not a disease, but a perfectly natural condition. It's how everyone comes into the world. Deliberately frustrating healthy functions and destroying human beings is the opposite of health care.

Claim 2 -- that the bishops' attempt to defend the religious freedom of Catholics undermines religious freedom for everyone: This is particularly baffling, so let me explain the situation.

The rule that the bishops are fighting mandates that nearly every insurance plan cover sterilization procedures and contraceptives -- even abortifacients -- without copays.

There is no exception for insurers who cover religiously based hospitals, nursing homes, private schools and charitable organizations.

All will be forced to violate their consciences or end their employee health benefits. Religious employees, required by the new health care laws to own health insurance, would have no way to protect their consciences.

Even without talking about conscience, this rule is strange. It is like demanding that all stores sell pork products, no matter what kind of store they may be.

Even if contraception and abortion are moral, why should a company interested in the delivery of medicine be forced to carry products that are not connected to medicine? Would it make sense to sell pork at a tire store?

Even supposing for the sake of argument that sales of contraceptives and abortion are related to medicine, the rule nonetheless demands that everyone sell them.

So every grocery store must carry pork products, even if a) they have a religious objection to pork -- they are kosher or halal; b) they have a nonreligious moral objection to the sale of meat -- they are vegetarian or vegan, or c) their customers have no use for the product, and so will not buy it.

This last difficulty is addressed by forcing everyone to go to the store and buy pork, even if they don't want it.

This is an indefensible assault on freedom of conscience, of association and of religion. When there are plenty of people who are willing to sell insurance that covers these products, why force everyone to do so?

Why does it become impossible to serve those who want to patronize insurance companies whose values are similar to their own? This does not help the common good. It merely sustains the good of a specific industry -- abortion and contraceptive sales.

Yet, according to Dibble, it is the bishops who are undermining religious freedom. It must be Opposite Day.

The logic of the rule the bishops are fighting is this: If the government has the authority to force us to act against our conscience (religiously informed or otherwise) or our freedom to buy what we want from those we want to buy from, there is no principle for stopping at insurance. What other services will medical professionals be forced to provide to people who do not wish to receive them?

Ask the 12 nurses at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, who are fighting for their professional lives because they cannot in conscience participate in abortions.

There are many Sen. Dibbles who find the use of contraceptives and abortion to be not simply a reasonable private alternative, but an important good everyone must have, whether they want it or not.

There are others (we all know one) who will condemn parents who choose to have more than two children.

And many a parent has been labeled a "genetic outlaw" by someone who would eliminate Down syndrome by eliminating the child who has it. Imagine those anticonscience principles, and the power of the government, in their hands.

Then hope it's just Opposite Day.

* * *

Stephen J. Heaney is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of St. Thomas.

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