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My religion is to kill your religion

The discussion about the birth control pill fiasco has boggled my mind. I’ll explain the title toward the end, but let me start with my bogglement. There are whole swathes of blogland who feel that so long as the pills are available, it’s all good. They don’t see a problem with the fact that, as Charles Pierce [1] puts it:

The Church has claimed — and the president has tacitly accepted — the right to deny even its employees of other faiths the health-care services of which it doesn’t approve on strictly doctrinal grounds. That is not an issue of “religious liberty.” That’s the enshrinement of religious thuggery in the secular law.

That’s also a remarkable departure in a country founded on the separation of church and state, a country where as recently as twenty years ago even the most conservative of Supreme Court justices asserted that religious practices cannot conflict with the law of the land [2]. Dakinikat [3] quoted a few days ago:

The free exercise [of religion] clause and its meaning is well established. There is very little ambiguity about what it is and what it is not.

“In 1878, the Supreme Court was first called to interpret the extent of the Free Exercise Clause in Reynolds v. United States, as related to the prosecution of polygamy under federal law. The Supreme Court upheld Reynolds’ conviction for bigamy, deciding that to do otherwise would provide constitutional protection for a gamut of religious beliefs, including those as extreme as human sacrifice.”(1 [4])

The Court stated that “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious beliefs and opinions, they may with practices.”

Or, as the Reclusive Leftist [5] says:

“[I]n 2000, the EEOC ruled that employers who failed to include birth control coverage in their prescription healthcare plans were in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That’s because the Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination on the basis of sex. The EEOC allowed no exceptions for religious institutions.

What the Obama Administration has done now is to basically reverse that. They’ve said, “You know what? Never mind. That clause in the Civil Rights Act about discrimination on the basis of sex? Forget it.”

So, yes, the pills will still be there for women who need them. But not because the government says women have the same right as everybody else to make their own decisions about their own health care.

The pills are still there, but not because you have a right to them. It’s because nobody has taken them away yet.

Losing your rights is not a win. Getting birth control pills by the grace of Obama is not a win. Unless you mean a win for him. Now this is something that’s his to bestow … or for those bogeyman Republicans to take away. Or, given Obama’s past actions in non-election years, his to bargain away.

That is why rights are important. Having rights means people who violate them can be held accountable. Receiving dispensations means constantly asking (begging?) for what you need, and tough luck when you don’t get it.

We’ve seen that movie play out in abortion rights. Riverdaughter [6] summarizes:

The same thing happened with abortion. It was merely a few workarounds, a few inconveniences. If you really need an abortion, it will still be there for you. You just need to assuage the consciences of a few religious people. That’s how it started. But how has it ended? In some states, there is only a single provider and women have to risk losing their jobs to get an abortion. It’s no longer just a few workarounds. Now, it’s a major ordeal.

And that progression happened because for too many people it wasn’t about the right to decide your own medical procedures. So long as they still had some kind of escape from forced pregnancy, it was just too difficult to argue about rights. The result is that here we are. Too many people are just glad they can still get birth control pills. Arguing about rights is divisive, difficult, aids and abets Republicans (see above, re “bogeyman”), and time-consuming. And it’s physically nauseating to realize that you’re not a human being in other people’s, including the President’s, mind.

Because the subhuman status of women is an unavoidable consequence of not acknowledging their right to make their own medical decisions. It’s a logical consequence of putting a religion, any belief, ahead of the civil rights of citizens, any citizens.

I’ll go through the steps. There aren’t many.

If you accept that everyone is equal before the law, then respect for people’s beliefs must take a back seat to the same respect for everyone’s beliefs. That’s what equality before the law means. When beliefs conflict, actions based on those beliefs must be restrained to the extent that they interfere with anyone else’s equal exercise of their own rights.

On the other hand, if beliefs can take precedence, then equality can’t exist. It’s a logical impossibility. If we’re all equal, and everybody’s beliefs are therefore equal, but beliefs trump other rights, then my religion can trump your religion. And if my religion is that your religion should be wiped out, we’ve achieved logical absurdity in three easy steps.

So respecting beliefs more than some people’s civil and human rights has to mean that those people don’t count. If one truly believed they were equal, one would be instantly in the land of logical absurdity. And I think people feel that, even if they don’t articulate it. Look at how blandly they insist that rights aren’t the issue; pills are. Recognizing rights in that case leads straight to either saying that women don’t really have them (which most people don’t want to say out loud) or to absurdity.

I do realize that another logical consequence of saying we’re all equal, and therefore some rights have to take a back seat to others, is that I’ve just said there’s a hierarchy of rights, that some rights are more important than others. And I also realize that means one has to make decisions about relative importance, and that that’s supposed to be the end of the world. God help us, the thinking goes, if we have to start making value judgments, there’ll be no way out of the he-said-she-said morass and the legal system will be overwhelmed.

There are a couple of arguments against that point of view. One is that the current system is not exactly morass-free, so I’m not sure we need to fear the complexity all that much. Two is that the complexity is an unavoidable consequence of equality. That may make things difficult, but the only alternative is might making right. If we want equality and rule of law, then we have to deal with the complexity. Insisting it’s too much for us won’t make it go away.

I spend more time discussing the hierarchy and relationships of rights in Re-imagining Democracy [7], but in the particular case of women’s reproductive medicine and religious beliefs there aren’t too many steps to follow.

Making your own medical decisions is an integral part of the right to control your own body, the right to your own bodily integrity. Others can’t hit you, cut you, perform medical procedures on you, or kill you, except when you’ve been declared a legal non-person either because of mental incompetence or criminal action. The right to be free from direct physical harm is so basic it’s even more important than the prohibition against killing. It’s recognized that you have a right to kill in self-defense.

The right to control your own body is self-evidently basic to the exercise of all other rights. If you can be beaten at any time, you’ll do whatever is necessary to avoid beatings. It won’t matter what rights you have on paper. If you can be Catholic only if you agree to have a finger removed, there won’t be many Catholics. If you can take part in a demonstration only if you’re ready to withstand virginity tests (or, if male, colonoscopies), that’ll cut way down on the number of people demonstrating.

The right to control your own body is absolutely fundamental. Medical procedures are part of that right. Both birth control and abortion are medical procedures. The right to make decisions about them rests solely with the person involved. Religion can enter into the decisions made by that person, but it cannot affect the exercise of a basic human right in anyone else. Unless, of course, you abandon equality and the rule of law.

(No, it makes no difference that in the case of reproduction another potential human being is involved. The right to control your own body takes precedence even over somebody else’s life. That’s why nobody can requisition your spare kidney to save another actual human being, to say nothing of a potential one. Further, whether pregnancy involves a mother and a human being or a mother and a developing group of cells is a matter of belief. There are no cellular markers that light up when you become a person.)

So here’s the bottom line. Women have lost the recognition of their most basic right as citizens. In return, they have been given pills. That is a sop, not a win.