Contra Kristof

Nicholas Kristof weighed in today on the Catholic-contraception kerfuffle, in a Times op-ed piece.

Even Mr. Kristof acknowledges that this issue is hardly cut-and-dried. He writes:

Look, there’s a genuine conflict here. Many religious believers were sincerely offended that Catholic institutions would have to provide coverage for health interventions that the church hierarchy opposed. That counts in my book: it’s best to avoid forcing people to do things that breach their ethical standards.

Quite so. And he gets the terminology right: what is at issue here is the Federal government “forcing people to do things”. That is not the same thing as prohibiting criminal acts, or prohibiting anything at all. There is a difference between prohibition and compulsion, and compelling people to perform acts that are in direct contravention to their religious beliefs has generally been recognized, throughout history, to be among the extremest forms of subjugation, right up there with rape, mutilation, and infanticide. If you wanted to degrade and humiliate a Jew or a Muslim, for example, you might force him to eat pig-flesh. And if you wanted to publicly and politically degrade and humiliate the Catholic Church, to make it bend the knee and kiss the ring, you would force it to issue contraceptives.

That many Catholics live in apostasy when it comes to this tenet of the Church’s teaching, as Mr. Krsitof and others have made sure to point out, is completely irrelevant here. The laity are not the ones who were brought under this compulsion at the whim of the Executive Branch; the Church itself was. Catholic doctrine is not configured by referendum.

Mr. Kristof, having acknowledged all this, soon loses sight of this important distinction between prohibition and compulsion, nevertheless:

The basic principle of American life is that we try to respect religious beliefs, and accommodate them where we can. But we ban polygamy, for example, even for the pious. Your freedom to believe does not always give you a freedom to act.

But of course the Church doesn’t seek to “act” here, not at all. It merely wishes not to be compelled to violate its own sacred teachings.

Mr Kristof clearly agrees with the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, that poor women having lots of babies is a bad idea all round (she expressed this eugenic, Progressive goal in her autobiography as a need to “stop the multiplication of the unfit”). Mr. Kristof argues that the “The cost of birth control is one reason poor women are more than three times as likely to end up pregnant unintentionally as middle-class women”, and that many are “relying only on condoms”.

Leaving aside what other reasons there might be, we should note here that condoms, if used properly, are extremely effective at preventing pregnancy, and that many married couples rely on them exclusively, in order to avoid the by-effects of oral contraceptives. From a public-health perspective, the condom is also the best method, short of abstinence, for preventing the spread of venereal disease. They are also cheap: a year’s supply, for a woman who has sex every single day, can be had for something like ten dollars a month. (Or, if she prefers, for nothing at all, in most cities.) Cost as an obstacle to contraception is simply not the issue that folks like Mr. Kristof would have us believe, as Andrew McCarthy argues here.

But let’s assume, arguendo, that the society at large does indeed have such a compelling interest in seeing that poor women are given contraceptives that it is determined to make it so. Even so it is hard to see why this couldn’t have been done without humiliating the Church in this way. Why not just cut out the middleman, and give the stuff away directly? Given what a political minefield this has become, wouldn’t that have been simpler, and more feasible politically?

I want to reiterate that I am no Catholic; I am not even a theist of any sort. I also think the Catholic Church’s position on contraception, like so many other positions it has stubbornly defended over the centuries, is ridiculous. But what I see here is a salient battle in the endless culture war waged by the Left against traditional society, and I see also an ever-expanding State garrisoning yet another patch of conquered territory, and bringing its inhabitants to heel. So I hie me to the ramparts.

Finally, I want to call out Mr. Kristof on a misleading statement that I will charitably assume is merely an oversight: he cites the source of some of his statistics, the Guttmacher Institute, as a “nonpartisan research organization on issues of sexual health”. The Guttmacher Institute is, however, hardly likely to be an impartial player in this debate, as we can see from its website:

Alan F. Guttmacher was president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a leader in the International Planned Parenthood Federation in the 1960s and early 1970s, he saw the need for the institution that now bears his name, and he nurtured its development.

I considered disallowing comments on this piece, because we’ve already had ample discussion on this head. But I don’t like to do that, so I’ll leave the comment-box open.


  1. Chris says

    Any source that agrees with an elite is by definition “non-partisan.”

    Posted February 14, 2012 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  2. Dom says

    You’ll love this.

    In my life — and I’m 60 — I’ve never read anything so bad. After I read it, I thought, “Okay, I’m through with the internet now.”

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Well, this is what’s tearing the country apart, as I argue here:

    The problem is that when the American Left and the American Right are asked “What is the good? What sort of America are we trying to create?”, they give fundamentally incommensurable answers.

    Posted February 15, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

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