My second post on this topic in a row, I know. But why not? We philosophers could be political pundits if we wished; it is just that we are normally too busy contemplating the mysteries of the heavens, cleaning off our glasses, tripping over our own shoelaces, etc.
The HHS Mandate starts from a correct premise concerning the intersection of the judgment of conscience with the rights of others. Here is how the moral philosopher Robert Spaemann formulates the principle:
“Certainly everyone has a duty to follow their conscience. But if in doing so a person infringes the rights of others, then both the others and the state have the right to stand in his way. It is an important element in human rights that the rights of one person should not be made dependent on the way the conscience of another person judges a situation.” See Robert Spaemann, Basic Moral Concepts, trans. T. J. Armstrong (New York: Routledge, 1989), 66.
Supporters of the HHS Mandate sometimes attempt to frame the issue in a similar way. The Mandate is said to protect employees from having their rights violated by employers who claim to be following their consciences in not providing health plans that cover abortion, sterilization, or contraception. A judgment of conscience is, in other words, not a free pass to trample on other human beings. The “right to adequate health care” enjoyed by employees should not be subject to the religious beliefs or “conscience” of their employers.
However, while the underlying principle is true–conscience should not trump human rights–the above is a misdescription of the Mandate. The misdescription comes about becomes of crucial omissions. Here is a fuller statement of the situation:
The HHS Mandate does not protect employees from any aggression on the part of their employer. No life-saving treatment of any sort is withheld (how else would one define “adequate” in terms of healthcare?). No action on the part of the employee is coerced. Rather, the employer of a private business, a free initiative, is pressured to do something he or she finds humanly objectionable.
No, that is still not adequate. Saying that the owner “finds” it objectionable to pay for abortion and sterilization makes it sound as though his attitude is some sort of passing fancy, a little idiosyncratic quirk. One is left with the image of the “Michael Scott” character from The Office suddenly deciding to grow a beard, wear flowing robes, and declare that he will henceforth lower the salaries of his female employees by $10,000 because he objects to their “whoring” in spending that money on tampons.
In fact, what the business owner–or the Catholic university president, or director of a charitable organization–objects to are practices that have consistently been criticized by religious traditions in place for thousands of years. When a business owner says “I will not pay for you to have an abortion,” or even, “I will not pay for your birth-control pills,” his judgment of conscience is not a nervous tick, but rather a judgment of moral reason shared by billions of like-minded human beings throughout history, including some of humanity’s most serious thinkers. There is, in other words, great precedent for the owner’s actions. The presumption must in this case be that there really is a deeply-held judgment of conscience involved.
And therein is the asymmetry: the “democracy of the dead” in no way stands behind the judgment that it is a fundamental human right to have others pay for one’s contraceptive measures, sterilization, or abortion. Where are the commandments to abort? The old and venerable sermons that the poor have a right to their daily pills? The pro-sterilization hunger strikes? “Give Me Abortion or Give Me Death?”
I don’t support indentured servitude. I don’t assume that employees alienate themselves from their human rights the minute they freely associate themselves with an employer. But it seems to me this right to not only to have an abortion, but to have someone else pay for one’s abortion, sterilization, etc. is a newly-invented right, and thus, highly suspect. In this case, the burden of moral proof does not rest with the business owners.