It’s Not About Contraception

Negative versus positive "rights"

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As for the claim about the allegedly prohibitive expense, one may properly ask how that could justify forcing others to pay. It’s amusing to watch advocates of free contraception cite as evidence for their position polls showing that women overwhelmingly support no-cost contraception. Since when have people not wanted free stuff? Women have managed to obtain birth control up until now (we’re repeatedly told that nearly all women, including Catholics, have used it), and low-income women can resort to Planned Parenthood if necessary, which already gets taxpayer money (which is not to say it should).

When a “Right” Is Not a Right

What we have in this debate is a clash not between two liberty interests, but rather between two rights-claims – one negative (genuine), the other positive (counterfeit). All that is required for the exercise of a negative right (to self-ownership and, redundantly, liberty and one’s legitimately acquired belongings) is other people’s noninterference. (“When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof,” writes James A. Sadowsky, S.J.) But the fulfillment of positive rights requires that other people act affirmatively even if they don’t want to — say, by providing products or paying the bills. If one person’s freedom depends on the infringement of someone else’s freedom, the first claim is illegitimate. To hold otherwise is to reject the principle of equality.

Women have the right to contraception (and any other product) in the sense that they have a right to spend their money on it or to try to persuade someone else to do so. There can be no right to force (or have the government force) others to pay. (Aside #2: It’s curious to see feminists asking the male-dominated State for “free” birth control.)

This controversy is not about contraception. It’s about freedom versus compulsion.

As long as that bad ingredient – the principle that government may coerce people to buy things for others – is baked into the cake, it will be rotten no matter how it’s nicely decorated.

Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman, where this column originally appeared.

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