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The False Premises of the HHS Mandate

Kathleen Sebelius
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, benefactor of women's rights?

If you had to reduce America to a single foundational idea, it would be that all people are born with certain natural rights that cannot be infringed upon by any government. These rights are inherent to being human beings--we are "endowed by our Creator" to use Jefferson's words--and are not given to us by kings, political leaders, or bureaucrats. Therefore, no law or government decree can grant people more rights, it can only take rights away. In other words, as governments gain more power, the people lose their freedoms, and that inevitable slide toward tyranny is what the American system is designed to combat.

I bring this up because we are now being told by the executive branch of our federal government that it needs to issue mandates in order to protect the rights of its citizenry. We are supposed to accept that women have a right to control their own reproductive futures and that that right can only be assured if they have access to birth control and morning after pills free of charge. Congress passed a law that gives the executive, through the Secretary of Health and Human Services, the power to mandate that all insurance companies offer contraception without co-pay, and we are being told that this is a societal good that grants rights to women that have been heretofore denied them by circumstance.

However, these premises ignore many inconvenient realities. The first is that there is no such thing as a natural right to free birth control pills. By framing this as a battle over women's rights, advocates of the mandate are trying to paint a picture whereby opponents can be said to be trying to take away the rights of half the population. Again, I reiterate that no mandate can grant people rights, only take them away (and nobody, as far as I know, is advocating that we ban contraceptives). In this case, it is the rights of insurance companies--or the rights of the people who run them, if the idea of companies having rights makes you uncomfortable--to offer the services they choose and the rights of people to dictate through competition what their insurance companies provide.

Various health insurance logos
Call me crazy, but I actually thought these were the good guys

Health insurance is supposed to be a voluntary contract between two private entities. A person who thinks healthcare is too expensive can choose to buy insurance, to pay a monthly premium in exchange for the company paying for healthcare. The insurance company makes money by charging more for the average premium than it would cost to cover all the average healthcare expenses, and the insuree weighs the potential loss against the convenience of being insured. Forget that, under new healthcare laws, this is no longer a voluntary system or that, by insisting that insurance companies have to ignore pre-existing conditions, these services can no longer be technically considered "insurance." The point is that the federal government has no business getting between a private individual's negotiations with another private entity. One can argue the merits of federal commercial regulations, but the bottom line is that, whenever bureaucrats inject themselves into private contracts, rights are taken away, not given.

If it were a universal good to offer free contraceptive services to all who want them--and if it lowered the overall cost of healthcare as advocates argue--then insurance companies would already be doing it. They should be able to make that choice, because choice tends to produce better results than mandates. Make no mistakes, this is about choice, and it is an irony that, in the name of pro-choice advocacy, defenders of the HHS mandate are attempting to take choice away from the people.

I'm sure if we mandated that all eating establishments offer free bacon, Muslims and Jews would understand that it's because we're protecting the rights of meat-eaters to make their own dietary decisions

If insurance companies are forced to offer a service free of charge, it will inevitably cause premiums to rise for everyone. Therefore, what the government is insisting we all do is pay more for our now-mandatory health insurance so that everybody can have free birth control pills. We should be able to make that choice for ourselves, to decide if the extra cost is worth it; a lot of people probably would. However, we no longer have that choice, and that means we have lost a right, not gained one.

If you want to make the argument that we should all pay more for healthcare so that poor people can have access to it, then it is a slippery slope towards government-run healthcare. After all, the difference between mandatory health insurance that is controlled by executive fiat and universal healthcare paid for by taxes isn't that great. From that perspective, this is all a shell game, a sly bit of misdirection on the way to wrenching control of healthcare away from the marketplace and into the hands of politicians. How much of a leap is it from free contraception to free colonoscopies, free treadmills, free diabetes supplies, free doctor visits, free CAT scans, and free aspirin?

And why should we trust politicians to know what's best for us? This brings me to another false premise of the mandate, that free access to contraception would be an indisputable good. For the record, I have no problem with contraception and consider myself pro-choice when it comes to abortion. However, there are some basic facts you have to deal with if you're going to argue that free birth control pills for all will lead to a better tomorrow. For one, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases have grown significantly since the invention of the pill. For another, birth control pills are not 100% effective, so there is the inadvertant side effect of women getting pregnant while still taking birth control pills, something that can have severe detrimental effects on an unborn child.

RU-486, the pill of absolute good?

Opponents of the mandate are getting hung up on the religion angle, but one does not need to cite the freedom of religion (which, incidentally, is a far more tangible right than the alleged right to free contraception) to debate the argument that birth control pills are an absolute good for society. I'm no prude (and have argued strongly against abstinence-only education), but when did it become unfashionable or politically incorrect to advocate responsible abstinence? I have no qualms with the sexual revolution and have no desire to infringe upon the rights of women to choose their own destiny, but I cannot deny human nature: when you reduce the perceived risk of an activity, more people will engage in that activity. Free birth control and morning after pills, therefore, would be likely to increase unwanted pregnancies and STDs, not lead to a shining future where sex is consequence-free.

Neither side of this argument is being honest about what it's really about. It is not about women's rights, and it is not about religious liberty. It's not even about contraception or sexual politics. This is about choice, plain and simple, and about whether or not we believe the government has the power to mandate our way to happiness. I happen to believe that we have a natural right to pursue our own happiness, but maybe that's just me.

-e. magill 2/21/2012

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