A for-profit corporation wants a religious exemption from being required to allow their employees to use health-insurance they earn with their labor to acquire doctor-prescribed contraceptives. The argument about contraception (and that red-herring abortion) pops its ugly head up once more. Once more the debate is framed largely in terms of individual choices and rights and personal preference.
By focusing upon the ethics of individual choices as though they occur in a vacuum we miss the forest for the trees. A common line of argument for progressives is to highlight particularly complex cases and declare that you or I or the corporation or the government or whoever doesn’t have the right to decide for that individual what is best. The fact that we progressives are the ones that end up in the libertarian position on this issue, while conservatives end up on the side of the nanny-state just shows the cynicism behind our political discourse.
If we would step back from whether a particular choice to use contraception is good or bad and just look at the effect of contraception as a whole on our world this debate would be long over.
Contraceptives are one of the most important factors in reducing poverty everywhere. The quality of life for half of our species has never improved so dramatically as it has in the past century due to women having increasing control over conception. More women are receiving an education and more women are gaining equal access to the workplace than ever in human history and this is partly due to contraceptives. Women may now leave marriages that are abusive due to this greater economic freedom. It is sometimes lamented that the lack of a male birth-control pill puts all the pressure for contraception on women, but if you look at that from another angle you’ll recognize that never before in the history of humanity have women had much if any control over when and how often they conceive. Putting the control in women’s hands IS the stroke of genius that has enabled so much progress.
In industrialized nations the birth rate is declining, which is good news to a world that has over-exploited many of its resources. Infant mortality is at an all-time low, as is child mortality due to the fact that more and more children are being born into stable family environments. Wherever access to contraceptives is improved abortion rates decline, as do teenage pregnancies. In fact, in our own country as government funding for contraceptives and comprehensive sex education was recently increased the abortion rate declined to an all-time low.
The fact that women are given the power to determine when to have children is probably responsible for the increase in sensitivity to children’s welfare in our society. A little over a century ago children working full-time jobs was the norm. Corporal punishment was embraced. There was no sex-abuse scandal in the church not because it wasn’t rampant, but because children weren’t esteemed the way they are now. When we are empowered to choose our children, those children are treated better and as a result the world becomes a better, more beautiful place.
We all have a strong interest in living in a world where there is greater and greater access to contraception for everyone. For women and children the world before effective contraception was a terrifying misogynist dystopia where their bodies were forfeit to the desires of men. For men it was a world where fully half our species wasn’t able to contribute to its maximum potential and as such we were all impoverished. Contraceptives might just be one of the greatest ethical achievements ever.