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“Missing the Point” 12 February 2012

The news continues to swirl around the Health & Human Services mandate that all employers, including religiously-affiliated ones, offer health insurance that provides free access to sterilization, contraception, and abortion-inducing drugs.  With yesterday’s announcement of President Obama’s “accommodation to religious objectors, the latest iteration in the news cycle purports a division in the Catholic response/position on the subject.

While the bishops of the United States are the ones who provide the “official” response on this subject, let me offer this religious educator’s perspective.  It seems to me that some folks are missing the point(s).

Not to be dismissed are two pragmatic concerns.  On the political side, by what authority does a government mandate what a private company must sell and at what price?  This question goes to the heart of how our national Republic operates.  And, on the financial side, as we all learned at a young age, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch,” so even if insurers rather than employers are providing such services, somebody (everybody) is being obliged to pay for them.  In a capitalist economy, the costs of a demanded product are not unusually borne out of the good-heartedness of a supplier!

But the bigger, and more substantial, concern is neither political nor economic, though both realms are impacted by it.  The real questions in this controversy are MORAL ones and, as such, they both affect and reflect our understanding of what it means to be a person and not just what some persons believe religiously.

In this regard two debates arise.  The first has to do with what healthcare is. What the controversial mandate requires, whether from employers or insurers, is free and universal access to specified medical interventions (mostly in the form of pharmaceuticals) that are categorized as “preventive care” that will purported have a beneficial effect on the overall quality and cost of healthcare.  “Preventive” they most certainly are … for they are intended to prevent the coming-to-be of a human being!  (And it’s true that overall costs will decrease if there are fewer human beings needing health!)

But whether these preventive measures (unlike, say, a mammogram) are really providing “care” to people is a matter of moral analysis.  The conclusion, presumed and promoted by the government mandate, is not a foregone one; in fact, a significant portion of our citizenry, favors the choice for life.  But even beyond the statistics, the question raised earlier by Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan remains:  when pregnancy comes to be seen as a disease requiring preventative measures, what does that say about a society’s view on the value of human beings?

The second fundamental question has to do with what liberty is and what it entails.  The first of our cherished rights in the U.S.A. is “freedom of religion.”  It’s first not just in terms of a list, but in the sense of being primordial, the basis for all other rights.  Why?  Because foundational to the human enterprise is the belief one has concerning the meaning of the world and one’s place within it.  That belief, whatever form it takes, is what shapes the thinking and acting that constitute each individual’s actual existence.

Despite appearances, the government’s revision of the regulations does not actually “accommodate” this religious liberty and the freedom to understand what human existence means and what it demands of us; rather, it merely shifts the accounting to a third party (the insurers), without addressing the core concern of conscientious moral objection to the specific services still being required.  But can one really balance an inalienable human right (to religious liberty) and a government-mandated desire (to fund free access to so-called preventive health care)?  On the see-saw of public policy, if the former is not undeniably weightier, then the ride we’re on as a society is badly broken.

Centuries ago, our university’s patron – St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) – penned these words about human nature in his Introduction to the Devout Life (I:24):  “There is no nature so good that it cannot be perverted to evil by vicious habits; there is none so perverse that it cannot … be brought under control and overcome.” Given this bi-polar truth about ourselves, the healthcare debate will no doubt continue, as it should.  Being primarily a moral matter, it goes to the heart of who we are, as individuals and as a country.  Desires are to be appreciated.  Passion and conviction should both be welcome.  But in the end, reasoning has to prevail … we hope.

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