From the department of things I have so many conversations about I want to respond to them in bulk on my blog: social issues.
It’s a Presidential election year in the United States, and that means we’re treated to another fun and entertaining Republican Primary, in which Republican hopefuls continue to boast about how conservative they social issues. And of course, social issues doesn’t mean actually important issues like poverty, homelessness, education, and disease — it means finding ways to restrict abortion, same-sex marriage, and nowadays even access to contraception. Whee.
Now of course, people have taken to argue back against these social issues, saying things like:
If you think an abortion is immoral, then don’t get an abortion. It’s that simple.
Claiming that someone else’s same-sex marriage is against your religion is like being angry at someone eating a jelly donut because you’re on a diet
Cute, but I think these retorts are part of the problem, and when put back in context reveal a blasé attitude toward the actual claims that social conservatives are making, how wrong these claims are, and how harmful their quest for perceived purity is. And along the way, I’ll go down the social issues rabbit hole and try to point out just how absurd focusing on these social issues are. And no, nothing here is infringing, or even coming close to infringing, religious freedom.
The Objective Nature of the Claims
To understand what’s inaccurate here, let’s explore two related concepts: subjective and objective. Typically, this divide has been made where objective facts are things that are true no matter what people believe (the Earth is round regardless of how many people buy into The Flat Earth Society) and subjective facts are things that are true depending on what people believe (“I like ice cream” only if I actually do hold that belief).
Objective vs. Subjective
Now, I don’t think this is a smart divide, namely because if I like ice cream, than “Peter Hurford likes ice cream” is a true fact regardless of what everyone else believes — it just describes the attitudes of a particular person in a particular time, and thus is objective.
Now I may stop liking ice cream, and then the fact ceases to be true, but that doesn’t make the fact suddenly not objective, just like “England is the world’s most powerful empire” became false without it becoming subjective. Instead I like to speak of all facts as objective facts, and just add that some facts are relative to certain people and/or certain periods of time, so we can express accurate attitudes about how things change.
So this is cool and all, but what does it matter when it comes to social issues?
It’s Like Murder, Not Spinach
The problem is that the responses I mentioned treat a non-relative (objective) issue as a person-relative (subjective) preference. “If you think an abortion is immoral, then don’t get an abortion” only works if it’s just a personal ickiness for abortion, like saying “If you think spinach tastes bad, then don’t eat spinach”. Whereas the attitude is more accurately akin to murder, since these people believe abortion is murder, and “If you think murder is immoral, then don’t murder anyone” just doesn’t make any sense.
While it doesn’t make any sense to say that because you don’t like spinach then all people should be forever banned from eating spinach, it does make sense to say that murder is immoral and all people should be forever banned from murdering everyone! And when people say that abortion is immoral, or that same-sex marriage goes against my religion, they are making a claim in the same vein as the murder one. For social conservatives, same-sex marriage is more than just something they don’t want to do, but something they want seen wiped from all of society. Like murder.
Now, of course I don’t agree with them, not one bit. But admitting the type of claim being made changes the debate on social issues greatly.
The New Way to Approach this Debate
What is it about saying that murder is bad makes us justified in preventing everyone from murdering, everywhere? I’ve begun a long journey talking about morality in “The Meaning of Morality”, which has already spawned two follow-up posts and will probably spawn a few dozen more. But I can truncate all of these conclusions into one uncontroversial answer: murder causes great harm to people and we have a collective interest as a society to see this harm eliminated.
However, I (baselessly) speculate that people want to smooth over this disagreement by claiming a position of relativism where all viewpoints are equal and social conservatives aren’t mistaken about abortion needing to be opposed, but it’s just that this opposition should be personal and kept to themselves. Basically telling them that their gay bashing is cute, but they should do it somewhere else and not make legislation about it, because other people may not agree with them.
So, it’s up to social conservatives to demonstrate that same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception cause a harm to society that is so great we need to use the law to eliminate them. And we respond by demonstrating that their claims are bunk, and that same-sex marriage, abortion, and contraception cause no such harm.
In fact, it’s the opposite: it actually turns out that suppressing same-sex marriage, abortion, and birth control causes real harm, we need to do more and turn the tables against social conservatism. And this makes it all the more imperative we combat these socially conservative arguments and put us on the path to a society that cares about the facts and uses them to create a society in which people are happier and better off.
So what’s this about wanting to restrict same-sex marriage? As far as I can tell, it comes from two places: (1) the need to uphold a “traditional” and “natural” marriage between a man and a woman and (2) Leviticus 18:22, which says that men “shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.”
But none of these matter for anything — while there is an interesting case that homosexuality is completely natural, even it weren’t, there still is no harm that comes out of same-sex marriage. Quite simply, we don’t get our cues from what other animals do in any realm, otherwise we would be running around naked all the time; and we don’t take tradition to be absolute or else we would still be prosecuting women for being witches.
Additionally, claims that homosexuals weaken the sanctity of marriage by divorcing more frequently or by not being aimed at procreation are unsubstantiated, given that one group’s marriage can do nothing to harm another marriage and we let unstable marriages and infertile marriages be created all the time!
It’s clear there is no actual harm in same-sex marriage, so restricting them by creating arbitrary “man and woman” definitions or proclaiming marriage to be a uniquely religious domain only prevents two people who love each other from having their connection validated and getting marriage benefits. By denying them their marriage, you not only deny them rightful benefits, but harm them psychologically and signal a cultural inferiority.
Abortion is a much tougher case to crack, but it’s a good start to point out how contradictory it is that people want to see less abortions, yet don’t support birth control, safe-sex education, or welfare, because less funding for those causes more abortions. It seems that many people aren’t interested in less abortions after all.
Numerous people frame the pro-choice case on woman having a right to control their own body, and while this is indeed true, it doesn’t really address the concern that abortion constitues a murder. If those against abortion were indeed correct that abortions were not in any way distinguishable from murder, it wouldn’t matter much how inconvenienced the woman was, unless their life itself was in danger.
Yet, abortion does not actually constitute a murder in any analogous way. No one has so far been able to demonstrate the existence of a soul, let alone that fetuses have been endowed with one, so the only argument is that fetuses eventually become people, yet currently aren’t people. But this doesn’t fly either because any act of not having sex ends up killing a potential person by preventing it from having existed in the first place.
I’m going to have to cut it short there and just say that I agree with Peter Singer on the issue and with what Garren Hochstetler wrote in his comments on the book “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life”. No doubt I haven’t convinced any pro-life people to change their mind here, because it’s a complex issue that requires far more than four paragraphs. But while I’ll revisit the issue later, I still don’t think that social conservatives have proven the harm.
Contraception didn’t always use to be a key social issue, but with the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act (dreaded socialist evil ObamaCare) mandating that health insurance plans cover contraception, it became a big deal for people who see their being forced to cover contraception as an affront on their religious freedom.
So what’s the issue? As Mitt Romney writes in the Washington Examiner:
The Obama Administration [...is] impos[ing] a secular vision on Americans who believe that they should not have their religious freedom taken away [...by] forc[ing] Roman Catholic hospitals, charities, and universities to purchase health insurance for their employees that includes coverage for contraception, abortifacients, and sterilization, in violation of their religious principles.
Romney is wrong.
This Isn’t Unique
Romney acts like this is an infringement like we’ve never seen before, and it only happened under Obama because he’s sooo radical. Romney is wrong… this case isn’t unique and appears to just be an issue-of-the-day to rally voter support.
28 states already have state laws mandating the coverage of contraception and five of those states do not include any exception for religious institutions.
In fact, the law is so un-unique that saw its origin under George W. Bush, where the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act required that all companies which provide prescription drugs must also provide birth control.
This is Popular
Romney also acts like this bill is universally repudiated by the entire population, or at least the entire population of Catholics. But Romney is wrong again.
Taken to the polls, the anti-contraception consensus falls through, even among Catholics: A Public Policy Poll found that 58% of all Catholics, and 62% of all Catholic women, agree employers should be required to provide their employees with health care plans that cover contraception.
Catholic Women don’t use birth control any less than non-Catholic women.
And just to prove how widespread not-following-all-Catholic-teachings is, Republican candidates themselves go against much of the Catholic Church’s teachings on war and caring for the poor.
This is Legal and Constitutional
Romney makes a big deal about how this bill is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. He even calls his position unassailable and cites Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC (2011) in his favor as saying the bill is an unconstitutional violation of freedom of religion. Romney is wrong again.
The case he cited has nothing to do with contraception, but rather only prevents schools from firing teachers for religious reasons. Instead, we can look to Oregon Employment Division v. Smith where the state was allowed to enforce drug laws against those who used drugs for religious ceremonial reasons, despite claims to religious freedom.
Furthermore, the religious freedom excuse crumbles more genrally because, as Alonzo Fyfe notes, there are many ways in which we do restrict religious freedom: we don’t let Scientologists deny coverage for psychological treatment, we don’t let Seventh Day Adventists deny coverage for blood transfusions, we don’t let Muslim or Jewish hospitals segregate their patients on the basis of gender, and we don’t let Christian hospitals deny care to gay people or deny gay people visitation rights. Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to deny care to people, and it does not mean freedom to harm.
You Aren’t Paying for Sluts
Lastly, despite Rush Limbuagh’s misogynistic tirade culminating with a request that all people on birth control publish videos of the sex they have (and less you accuse me of partisanship, Bill Maher was misogynist too), framing this as you being forced to pay financially for someone else’s sexual promiscuity is ridiculous in so many ways…
You as a taxpayer don’t actually pay anything. This is only between health providers and those who provide health services, and the schools and hospitals will be the ones paying those rates, though they may pass costs on in the form of higher tuition. None of your taxpayer money will be going to fund any form of contraception whatsoever.
Even if your taxpayer money were going to fund contraception, you still have no room for complaint because our taxpayer money goes to fund all sorts of things we don’t like, such as massive wars. Our appeal here is through the democratic process and open debate, not in refusing to pay money.
This isn’t at all about sexual promiscuity — birth control is used for many other things than controlling pregnancy such as medical disorders, and just a short visit to kidshealth.org shows that you use the same amount of pills no matter how much sex you have.
Even if it were about sexual promiscuity, it doesn’t matter, because there’s nothing at all harmful about safe sex. Get over it.
Followed up in Much Ado About Gay Marriage, Part I
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