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Birth Control

by Bill Meacham on January 30th, 2012

A current New York Times article describes controversy over birth control pills at Roman Catholic colleges.(1) The difference between two ways of thinking about ethics, the Goodness paradigm and the Rightness paradigm, could not be illustrated more starkly.

The U.S. Health Care Reform legislation mandates that employer-funded insurance plans cover birth control for employees, including students at Catholic colleges, according to a recent ruling from the Obama administration. Catholic institutions are howling in protest, claiming that to do so would force them to violate their religious beliefs.

The ruling is based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, an independent group of doctors and researchers that concluded that birth control is not just a convenience but is medically necessary to ensure women’s health and well-being. Providing birth control would likely lower both pregnancy and abortion rates. And women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to be depressed and to smoke, drink and delay or skip prenatal care, potentially harming fetuses and putting babies at increased risk of being born prematurely and having low birth weight.(2)

In other words, providing birth control provides unmistakable benefits to women and avoids harm to infants. This way of thinking is the hallmark of the Goodness paradigm, evaluating choices on the basis of the benefits and harms expected from the various alternatives. If you allow birth control, you increase the chances for women’s health and reduce the chances for the depressing consequences of unintended pregnancy. If you forbid it, you do the opposite. In the former case, more good ensues; in the latter, more harm.

Opposed to this is the Rightness paradigm, evaluating choices on the basis of moral rules regardless of consequences. The Catholic Church considers it morally wrong to prevent conception by any artificial means, including condoms, IUDs, birth control pills and sterilization. So Catholic college administrators don’t want to prescribe birth control pills even though according to Catholic doctrine itself abortion is a graver sin than contraception, and banning contraceptives would most likely increase abortions.

So how should we adjudicate this? I am thoroughly in the Goodness camp here. There is no systematic way to find out what the moral rules are. In the case of the Catholic church, all it can do is appeal to authority. But there is a systematic way to find out what the benefits and harms are: observe reality carefully. So I find the Goodness paradigm far more preferable. for this and several other reasons outlined in my paper on the subject, “The Good and the Right.”(3)

The Catholic Church is being obstructionist. The law already exempts churches and other religious institutions from having to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees.(4) The issue here is Catholic schools. You can make the case that if someone joins the church they are agreeing that the church’s moral rules apply to them. But you can’t make the same case for someone who merely attends a church college.

A lot of philosophical controversy is rightly regarded as abstruse, theoretical and of little practical import. But not this one. Where you come down on the Goodness vs. Rightness question has profound consequences not only for your own actions but for societal policies that impact millions of people.


(1) Grady, Denise, “Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges.” New York Times, 29 January 2012. On-line publication, URL =

(2) “Excerpts From a Report on Women’s Health.” New York Times, 29 January 2012. On-line publication, URL =

(3) Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” On-line publication, URL =

(4) “A New Battle Over Contraception.” New York Times, 5 November 2011. On-line publication, URL = as of 29 January 2012.

From → Philosophy

  1. The issue is about religious freedom.

    If the state dispensed food, we’d be debating over what meals everyone would eat. If the state dispensed shoes, we’d be debating whether everyone wears sneakers or pumps. If the state provided primary education, we’d be debating what every kid would learn (actually, we do). If the state provided public transit, we’d be debating where everyone could go on public transit (and we do).

    In short, when liberty is nowhere to be found in your value system, you end up debating whether everyone gives abortions or no-one does, with no room for freedom of conscience whatsoever. Everyone believes the same, acts the same, speaks the same where the state has mandate. And those who resist are thrown into a government cage.

    How grotesque.

  2. It’s pointed to remember that the doctrine of the Roman Church derives from Aristotelian natural philosophy, which held that woman is matter onto which the male ideal form is stamped in conception. As a corollary, birth defects are seen to be due to the imperfection of (female) matter. The ideal, of course, is perfect. The objection to contraception is its constraint on the natural process in which the ideal shapes (feminine) matter.

  3. Larry Yogman permalink

    Another reason for Catholic authorities to allow birth control – it reduces the health risks associated with chastity:

  4. steve spindler permalink

    Although I believe that every woman, as a matter of right, should be able to control her body and use any method of birth control she wishes or use none at all, I think this begs the question at hand. No woman is forced to attend a college or university operated under the auspices of a religion. Does not her decision to do so implicitly mean that she has consented to follow the rules and prohibitions of the religion controlling the college or university or suffer the penalties imposed for not doing so ? If she is unwilling to follow those rules because she feels that such rules conflict with her personal beliefs, she has the the option of not enrolling in the institution.

    How is this different from a person attending a secular college which prohibits the use of alcohol in a college dormitory rooms, and who feels that such a rule violates that person’s freedom to control his or body but elects to attend the college nevertheless, not having reasonable grounds to protest when the person is expelled for violating the rule?
    It seems to me that when one knows the rules of an institution and decides to attend it despite his or her disagreement with its rules, that person cannot reasonably be heard to protest when punished for violating one of those rules, no matter how repugnant the person feels the rule to be.
    For better or worse, one cannot have his cake and eat it too.

  5. Gene Reshanov permalink

    I don’t think you can really tease the Good and The Right apart this way, Bill. What I see here is an illusion of doing so by a trick of naturalizing the Good. The key sentence is this: “But there is a systematic way to find out what the benefits and harms are: observe reality carefully.”

    Nope. That is not going to work. Look long and hard, but you will see only what you want to see. In other words, you will see as good that which your Theory Of Good tells you to look for. If your theory is keen on human dignity and freedom of choice – you will not see the Catholic Church on the side of the Good. But if your theory tells you that the Good is the obedience to our Lord J.C. and salvation of souls, then obviously the secularists will be in the wrong.

    This is not an argument of the rule-bound Deontologists vs the Utilitarians. It is a clash of two Goodness paradigms. And “the Right” is simply molded to fit the particular version of the Good. That’s why there is no (and there will be no) solution to this argument. There is no common ground. One side can only be (and was, and is, and will be) beaten into submission by the club of law.

    • If I look at societies in which human dignity and freedom of choice are promoted and I look at societies in which they are not promoted, I can see differences. And others will see the differences as well. We may disagree on some interpretations, but there are observable differences.

      If I try to look at societies in which the majority of souls are saved and societies in which the majority of souls are not saved, I cannot, because the salvation of a soul is not publicly observable. I can see people professing to be saved. And I can see others, also professing to be saved, who disagree that the former are saved. There is no publicly-observable way to tell who is really saved.

      I am indeed naturalizing the good. The good is that which promotes health, sound functioning, effectiveness and so forth. It is not a metaphysical quality, it is quite natural.

      And, you are right, the club of law is too often used to overpower conflicting opinions. But as a philosopher I aspire to something better than that, an appeal to reason. I do hope my efforts will not turn out to be fruitless.

  6. Rich permalink

    Hello, Bill.

    I think issues like this should be (and typically are in practice) adjudicated on a case by case basis, weighing competing goods and values against each other, and also taking into account pragmatic considerations. Promoting women’s health is a good thing (a little “g” good), and religious freedom is a good. Sometimes religious practice is curtailed because it’s trumped by something else, as with banning human sacrifice. In the birth control case, there’s a compromise: we like religious freedom and we like promoting women’s health, and we can pretty much have them both. Sure, some employees may have to leave their job if they want birth control coverage, but that’s probably regarded as an acceptable compromise, as it’s not too onerous.

    I don’t think I agree with you about the distinction between the church and school cases. You say: “You can make the case that if someone joins the church they are agreeing that the church’s moral rules apply to them. But you can’t make the same case for someone who merely attends a church college.” First, I’m not convinced the distinction you’re drawing is as sharp as you suggest. That is, there are probably some Catholics who use birth control, and it is probably the case that most students at a Catholic school are Catholic. Second, I’m not sure the distinction would be decisive here. I believe — as BZ noted above — the main issue is the religious freedom of Catholic institutions (and in what cases we are and are not willing to curtail it). As I take these kinds of decisions to be made based on an evaluation a body of values and interests, I think it is quite possible that there are significant relevant differences between the church and school cases.

  7. Stephen permalink

    The “rightness” idea, when it is based on wisdom and information from a superior intelligence, ought to supersede our limited understanding of what is “good.” This, of course, is the basis of all Judeo Christian and Islamic theology and religion, where the story begins with a command to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. If there is such a higher being, it is right to choose Their direction above our calculation of good.

    But we have a problem. The current power sources have marginalized research efforts to know whether such beings are “with” us, and how it is that we are to know their wisdom. As “atheists,” they have turned science and philosophy into a strictly atheistic, materialistic venture, against all the rules of the scientific method. Modern day Galileos, discovering, say, that dark matter is inhabited, are subjected to inquisitorial restrictions.

    Thus, Bill, you despair of knowing who is saved or not, even though we are specifically told by the putative God of the scriptures that this is easily determined, in a public way. (Malachi 3:18). If it were not for the diligent efforts of our Pope PNAS, you would know this, Bill, and there would be extensive research learning just how this is done.

    When the powers that be eliminate doing right from consideration, the public discussion clearly and wrongly supports the likely fatal choice of doing “good.” Oh, well. I hear it is a narrow gate.

    • PNAS is Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, right? And you are saying that the National Academy of Sciences fails to support research into psychic phenomena that might reveal the existence of such beings as God or angels, right? Just checking.

      Malachi 3:18 says “And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.” ( It says that we can tell the difference but not how. So I still say that there is no publicly-observable way to tell who is really saved.

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