Sisters of liberty

A group of nuns have won their case against the Obamacare contraception mandate. But their religious exemption is only required because of the government's encroachment

Rebecca Hecht

There is a group of doctors involved with the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) who don’t wear white coats, take the Hippocratic Oath, or seem to know much at all about medicine. The spin doctors on the Left are usually more effective (a 2011 advertisement showed a Paul Ryan lookalike toss his wheelchair-bound granny off a cliff, as a response to the Congressman’s plan to cut Medicare) than their counterparts on the Right.

 But the latter were given a publicity miracle when the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who care for the elderly indigent, became, in 2011, the bewimpled face of the 200 groups fighting against the Obamacare contraception mandate, which required non-profit religious organisations (universities, hospitals and charities) and for-profit companies to provide their employees with a health insurance plan covering the full costs of contraception. The nuns claimed it would be “immoral and sinful for them to intentionally facilitate the provision of contraceptives” and sued the government.

With these cases still stuck in the courts, President Trump announced last month that any organisation with “sincerely held religious beliefs” or “sincerely held moral convictions” can be exempt from the mandate. And with that, the Little Sisters of the Poor became the Big Heroes of the Pious.

Conservatives and religious groups saw Trump’s move as an affirmation of religious liberty — and it was. But is a religious exemption cause for celebration?

In the United States, few can recite the Bill of Rights by heart, but almost all know that the guarantee of religious liberty is in there somewhere, and that a desire for that particular liberty was a main drive for the colonisation of the country 250 years ago. The religious and conscience-based exemption is elemental to this guarantee. But these exemptions are only required when government meddles in and dictates the specifics of our daily lives. Rather than demonstrating how free a society is, a religious exemption is one of the clearest symptoms of a diseased government, one that encroaches upon the most personal activities and beliefs of its citizens. When the religious feel threatened, it’s then up to the government to determine what practices are allowed to stand and who is sincere in his beliefs, i.e., more meddling.

While Republicans champion victory for the nuns, they miss the critical issue in this whole story: why should the government demand that all health insurance policies provide free birth control in the first place? John Cochrane, professor of finance at the University of Chicago, put it well when he wondered how birth control could possibly fit within the bounds of “insurance”: “a contract, by which a company pays for large, unanticipated expenses in return for a premium”. The Obama Administration claimed there were medical and economic reasons for the free contraceptives: “Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women.”

Hardly any other medical expenses in the US (including those arguably more necessary) are completely on the house. That contraception is the freebie du jour suggests that something other than health benefit is at work here. Trump’s broadening of the religious exemption does not cure all the problems of the birth control mandate, but it is far better than the former Administration’s assault on the Little Sisters — and on the rest of us Americans.

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