Disingenuous Arguments for the HHS Mandate

I’ve more or less said my piece in response to the HHS Mandate — it’s about all I blogged about last week, and I’m pleased to move on to other topics, short of any major developments.  But I wanted to say one thing in passing: the arguments I’ve heard in favor of the HHS Mandate haven’t just been bad. In many cases, they’ve been outright disingenuous.

For example, the Times has descended to putting religious liberty in scare quotes and claiming that opposing the Mandate would “deprive [the Church’s] followers or employees of the right to disagree with that teaching.” That argument is utterly asinine: a fine example of false parallelism.  Consider.  It’s a functional violation of my right to be pro-life, if I’m conscripted to pay for what I believe is murder.  But in what world is it a violation of a pro-choicer’s right to be pro-choice if I don’t pay for her abortion?  Is anybody willing to defend the Times’ editorial here? Or are they just assuming their readers won’t think too hard about what they’re being fed?

Others have responded to some of the howlers (like the idea that 98% of Catholic women use contraception), but I wanted to directly tackle those who claim that we’re just against the HHS Mandate because we’re (a) conservative, (b) Catholic, or (c) against birth control:

    Cardinal Mahoney at the “May 1st Immigration Rally”
  • This isn’t a Left / Right Issue.   The New York Times referred to this as “a phony crisis over “religious liberty” engendered by the right.” That’s just not a serious claim.  Prominent liberal pundits like E.J. Dionne, Michael Sean Winters and Chris Matthews came out against the HHS Mandate.  Even within the Obama Administration, numerous high-profile figures tried to stop the Mandate from going forward: Politico names Vice President Joe Biden and then-Chief of Staff Bill Daley as two who tried to stop Obama from doing this, while ABC also mentions Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.  And neither the USCCB nor the American bishops can be pigeonholed as simply conservative.  For example, Cardinal Mahoney, who appears to have been the first to voice his objection, is a beloved icon of the religious left for his work marching with Cesar Chavez, and encouraging civil disobedience over Bush-era immigration laws (in fact, the New York Times even permitted him an Op-ed for this latter cause).
  • Albert Mohler
  • This isn’t a Catholic / Non-Catholic Issue.  Just as the opposition to the HHS Mandate cuts across party lines, so too does it cut across religious lines.  Numerous non-Catholic religious leaders have spoken out, like Rick Warren (Saddleback Church), Chuck Colson (Prison Fellowship), Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary), Richard Land (Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty commission), Albert Mohler (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary), and so on.  Nor is it just religious leaders.  James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal, who has come out swinging against the Mandate, is an agnostic.  Evangelical former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee captured this well by declaring, “We are all Catholics now.
  • This isn’t a Birth Control Issue.  Many of those folks that I just mentioned, whether non-Catholics or liberal Catholics, are fine with the use of contraception.  They oppose the HHS Mandate because it’s a violation of religious freedom, whether they share those same religious beliefs or not (Chris Matthews captures this well in his reaction). 
This is about religious freedom, pure and simple.  James Taranto captured this well, calling one of his editorials against the Mandate, “Birth Control Yes, Government Control No.”  So did Paul Gleiser, who wrote:

If a practicing Catholic or a Catholic institution in the United States can be compelled by the government to act against religious faith, it’s only a matter of time before some equally offensive compulsion is brought down upon you by the same heavy hand of a government that refuses to respect its limits. 

That’s why we’re all Catholics now.

Ironically, Obama finally seems to have achieved his dream of uniting people of every race, creed, and political affiliation — but this is probably not how he envisioned it playing out.


  1. I know its not a birth control issue, but isn’t an opportunity to present the case against BC. I mean, even saying you oppose BC (not that you support legislation against it) is a political third rail:


    Don’t Catholics have a responsibility to make the moral case against it and thereby bring the gospel to an age so morally muddled that it uses support for birth control as a litmus test for public office?

  2. Jon,

    I agree completely. This certainly creates an opportunity. I’d put it like this:

    (a) If you’re a conservative who believes in small government, that’s a good reason to oppose Obamacare, and the government’s attempt to turn private insurance companies into public utilities; and it’s a good reason to oppose this HHS Mandate specifically, which is an incredible governmental overreach.

    (b) If you’re a Catholic, you should obviously be against the HHS Mandate, as it’s a direct attack on the religious beliefs who cherish.

    (c) If you’re against birth control [and ideally, everyone in (b) is also here], then the idea of an HHS Mandate forcing you to pay for something that you think harms women, harms family, and harms society should be repugnant. And of course, the attempt to make religious groups pay for this idiocy should be regarded with disdain.

    My point in today’s post is that even people who don’t fall in (a), (b), or (c) are (and should be) against the HHS Mandate, because it’s an assault upon the First Amendment.

    Rick Warren, for example, isn’t Catholic, isn’t against birth control, and gave the Obama inaugural invocation, and he came out against the HHS Mandate. Our own Paul Rimmer similarly can’t be neatly written off as a partisan or sectarian hack.

    So should we, as Catholics, use this as an opportunity to speak out against birth control? Absolutely. But if we bank our entire opposition to the HHS Mandate on convincing post-Christian America that birth control is bad and self control is good, I think that’s a non-starter.



  3. Yea, I see your point. But don’t you get the feeling that the Administration is banking on the fact that even obedient Catholics (much less everyone else) just doesn’t quite get the moral argument against contraception? If this had to do with some non sexual rule, the Administration would have never thought twice about doing it. But I think people say outwardly that they think this is ridiculous but think inwardly “well it is only their asinine contraception rule, so it isn’t the end of the world.” Catholics may not need to proselytize on the issue, but they at least need to say “here’s why it matters.” For as Ross Douthat puts it, even obedient Catholics often think: “The natural law permits me to rigorously chart my temperature and/or measure my cervical mucus every day in an effort to avoid conception, but it doesn’t permit me to use a condom? Really?”

    Maybe there isn’t even a convincing argument. But if there is, I think it needs to be a part of this.

  4. This whole thing is a perfect teaching moment for the Bishops that’s quickly slipping through their fingers. They can point to Humanae Vitae, how it demonstrates the evil of contraception, also how it predicted all this would come to pass (written only 50 years ago…), and give the world a big fat “We told you so!”

    The Catholic commentator Mark Shea had a good blurb recently: “If what goes on in someone else’s bedroom is none of my business, then don’t make me pay for their supplies or the consequences. And conversely, if I’m going to be forced to pay for the supplies and the consequences, don’t say it’s none of my business.”

    Here’s a pair of (admittedly outlandish to make a point) hypothetical situations to ponder:

    President’s come and go, and what one creates, a successor can expand upon.

    An even more liberal democrat could come into office in 2020 (only a mere 8 years from now) and make a strong push for it be totally illegal to not offer offer abortions in all insurance policies, no exceptions. Forcing everyone to pay for abortions.

    On the flip-side, someone else could come into office, and make a push to remove condoms from store shelves, and require a prescription to buy them, and only then for couples married for no less than five years and with no less than three children.

    They can point to their predecessor President Obama, and his mandate stating that the greater good must take priority, and that any one who objects needs to get in line and get with the times.

    I admit that those two are both very extreme examples, and most likely won’t happen, but the point still stands that President Obama has set a dangerous precedent with this HHS mandate. A mandate that will almost certainly come back and bite us all in the behinds sooner or later if it’s not fought vigorously and defeated today.

  5. I think it would be a distraction to rationally defend the moral prohibition against artificial contraception. It would send mixed messages to a public already being manipulated by the left. We do not want to enable the narrative that the Church is somehow imposing a moral view on unwilling Americans. We need to focus on the ethical and legal questions of the mandate itself.

    There are some other arguments, though, that perhaps you could address, Joe. What about the comparison to Jevoha’s Witnesses and their prohibition on blood transfusion? The comparison is meant to show that religious liberty could not be an absolute. So what is a rational, non-ad hoc, principled, and legally sound response?

    What about the idea of 28 states (allegedly) already having similar mandates?

    And finally, most importantly, where can we go to see a sophisticated analysis of this mandate with sophisticated legal arguments against it?

  6. A distraction now and unnecessary before! Ah Catholics can always talk themselves out of talking about contraception. Can you blame the government for thinking the position is silly and arbitrary appeal to tradition? Catholics themselves don’t mount a rational defense of it!

  7. Brian,

    I addressed the 28 states argument here.  And I imagine that the Becket Fund would be a good place to go to find a sophisticated legal analysis, but I haven’t seen them put one out yet.

    As for Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’d say two things: (1) it’s distinguishable, since we’re talking about covering life-saving blood transfusions. The argument that this is something that should be a mandatory part of insurance coverage is obvious, in a way that it’s not for contraception.

    But (2) I think there’s a good argument to be made that if you (a) choose to work for a JW employer, and (b) choose to contract insurance through them, you can’t really complain if the insurance provided is consistent with JW values.  If you want a blood transfusion, you’re free to pay for it, or to get separate insurance coverage.

    On a related note, Georgetown University Hospital offers a bloodless medicine and surgery program for JWs.    I genuinely appreciate the way that they went out of their way to fill this niche, and cater to the religious beliefs of their clientele.  If only we could get them to respect Catholic beliefs as much…



  8. You do not think it would be a distraction, Jon? It would most definitely give our opponents an opportunity to focus on the moral argument and sideline the legal argument. You disagree?

    Joe, hmm. This is embarrassing.I do not seem to be able to locate where you address the “28 states argument.”

  9. Not if done rightly. In the philosophy of religion there is a distinction between “soft” and “hard” apologetics. “Hard” apologetics is where you try to show that the only defensible position is the one you are promoting. “Soft” apologetics tries to show only that your position is defensible. Soft apologetics is not out to proselytize in the same way that hard apologetics is.

    Now there is a time and a place for both sorts of apologetics. But I’m saying that we need aggressive “soft” apologetics on birth control. This is because people think that the Catholic position is irrational and, so long as that is the case, the government is going to continue to trample on freedom of conscience w/r/t contraception.

    Don’t you all agree?

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