Life, Liberty, and Birth Control?

The liberal conception of rights is wrong

Liberals would like to have you believe that the current debate over the freedom of religion in America is a battle over basic rights. While framing the debate, Obama and his allies have falsely asserted that this is not a battle for freedom of conscience but for a woman’s right to contraception. Freedom of religion? It’s something that liberals seem willing to accommodate as long as it is convenient—never mind that it is the first freedom in the Bill of Rights. Here’s an inconvenient truth: The right to contraception doesn’t exist, nor should it.

The progressive movement has grown over the past century by feeding off a false and absurd conception of rights. Realizing the extent of the government’s power, progressive leaders from Franklin D. Roosevelt, class of 1904, to Lyndon B. Johnson claimed that people had rights not because they were human but because they had subordinated themselves to government. Instead of having a government to protect the rights of the people, they wanted a government to grant rights to the people. As a result, when liberals saw a program that they wanted to implement, they created a right to it. All of sudden, the American people have a right to their entitlements—no matter how bankrupt Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid may be. Democrats wanted the government to take control of the health care market, so they granted the American people a right to health care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services mandate is just a continuation of the same concept: Democrats have created a right to abortion, sterilization, and contraception (but curiously, only for women). The government mandate is forcing religious institutions to pay for medical “care”—sterilization, abortifacients, and contraception—that they have regarded as evil for thousands of years because policy makers decided that people have a right to these services. Obama’s misnamed “compromise” does nothing to stop this violation of the freedom of religion. The “accommodation” merely requires insurance companies to provide the controversial services and then bill religious institutions for their costs. Either way, religious institutions are required to violate their conscience and pay for services they regard as evil.  It is, as Greg Mankiw has argued, “semantics at the highest level.”

The problem with the progressive model is that it eventually creates a behemoth of unnatural rights unable to sustain itself without consuming the basic freedoms and natural rights of the American people. The Declaration of Independence, the foundation of our understanding of rights as American citizens, states, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These inalienable rights are part of our nature as human beings; as such, they cannot be taken away, nor can we voluntarily sacrifice them. The struggle for equality throughout the history of the United States has focused on rights because they are the foundation of equality. Humans are equal not because they have the same abilities or character but because they have the same fundamental, inalienable rights. From the Emancipation Proclamation to Brown vs. Board of Education, some of the finest moments in American history have been the equal extension not of women’s rights or minorities’ rights, but of human rights to all people.

Today, liberals in Washington are attempting to use the power of government to violate these very inalienable rights that they took an oath to defend. “This conscience thing” that Nancy Pelosi has dismissed as an irrational obsession of conservatives is in fact what James Madison called the “the most sacred of all property” and what Jefferson argued was guaranteed by “the principles of the Constitution and the government of the United States.” To violate the natural rights of the American people in order to secure the deluge of absurd progressive “rights” is to reject the foundation of equality and liberty. No one in the Republican Party or the Catholic Church has argued that women should be prohibited from using contraception. What they do object to is the violation of the freedom to practice their religion and participate in civil society because the government decided to create a women’s right to contraception and abortion. No American should be forced not to practice medicine, educate students, contribute to charity, or participate in American civil society because of his religious beliefs. We are all humans with natural rights first and citizens second.

The debate over the HHS mandate is not a debate about the morality of birth control, sterilization, and abortion. It’s a dispute over the extent to which government can violate the natural rights of its citizens. Not long after our own revolution, the French attempted to create a social contract under which the individual ceded all rights and powers to the state in order to be “free.” Things didn’t turn out well, to say the least. Unfortunately, history seems apt to repeat itself, and when liberals stop misrepresenting the debate, perhaps they’ll recognize exactly where we’re headed. The conscience of the nation is at stake.

Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.