Quakers, Conscience, and Contraception

Jeff Jacoby

2/15/2012 1:42:00 PM - Jeff Jacoby

Much was made of the president's supposed compromise on requiring religious institutions to pay for their employees' contraceptives and sterilization drugs. "The new policy," a White House fact sheet declared, "fully accommodates important concerns raised by religious groups." While news headlines were more restrained ("Obama bends on birth-control mandate" was the Boston Globe's), they did suggest that if the administration had not completely conciliated its critics, it had at least met them halfway.

But the administration hadn't compromised at all: On the same day the White House announced its "full accommodation," it formally adopted -- without change -- the very regulation that had triggered the backlash. The compromise turned out to be merely a promise to modify the new rule before it goes into effect next year. And the promised modification in any case is a distinction without a difference: Rather than require church-affiliated institutions to insure their employees for birth control, the feds will require church-affiliated institutions to provide their employees with health insurance that will pay for birth control. If you don't like green eggs and ham, you can eat ham and green eggs. Some accommodation.

During the national debate over enacting ObamaCare in 2010, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi famously declared that Congress would "have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it." What's in it, millions of Americans now realize, goes well beyond the mandate that forces every individual to obtain health insurance or be fined by the IRS. There is also imperious culture-war bullying, in which religious employers with grave objections to abortion and artificial birth control are commanded to buy insurance policies covering them, regardless of their moral qualms.

You don't have to be Catholic to be alarmed when the government rides roughshod over the convictions of the faithful. Or to bristle at the prospect of individuals and institutions being coerced into complicity with acts that violate their deepest beliefs. Or to realize how impoverished American civic life would be without the myriad of charities, schools, hospitals, shelters, and social-welfare agencies created to put those beliefs into practice.

Accommodating sincere dissent is essential to democratic pluralism. Our legal and political institutions should go out of their way whenever possible to respect the demands of conscience. Obviously there are limits: Conscience cannot be allowed to excuse violence or fraud or abuse. But nothing about the Obama administration's contraception-and-abortion agenda justifies its disregard for those who have profound religious, cultural, and constitutional objections to that agenda.

Perhaps the real explanation, as Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told abortion-rights activists last fall, is that the administration sees itself "in a war" -- her words -- with anyone who resists the left's views on sex and reproduction. It's hardly the first time American officials have seen themselves at war with dissidents. In the 18th century, to mention just one example, authorities were determined to break the resistance of Quakers, who refused on principle to swear oaths of allegiance or serve in the militia. The Continental Congress passed a law branding any man who resisted the oath an enemy. Massachusetts tried to starve Quakers into submission; Virginia doubled their taxes.

But George Washington, for one, perceived how crucial it was to accommodate the dissenters' beliefs. It wasn't necessarily that they were right, but that respect for others' claims of conscience is integral to a culture of freedom. "I assure you very explicitly," Washington wrote to the Society of Quakers in 1789, "that in my opinion the conscientious scruples of all men should be treated with great delicacy and tenderness; and it is my wish and desire that the laws may always be as extensively accommodated to them, as a due regard to the protection and essential interests of the nation may justify."

There are plenty of non-religious reasons to object to the contraception mandate. It isn't necessary (birth control and abortion services are widely available to virtually anyone who wants them). It isn't economical (using insurance for routine expenses causes health-care spending to soar). It isn't constitutional (the government has no legitimate authority to micromanage Americans' health-care decisions, or to decide who should pay how much for what services.)

Yet nothing exemplifies ObamaCare's overreach like the birth-control mandate and its assault on conscience. The White House may see nothing wrong with trying to compel religious institutions and individuals to commit acts their faith forbids. Countless Americans clearly do. Birth control and health insurance have much to recommend them, but neither goes to the essence of American pluralism. Religious liberty, on the other hand, is the very first freedom in the Bill of Rights.