Freedom of Religion: The Right to be Wrong.

Several years ago a friend shared a frustration about her job as a public school teacher: She felt that in the faculty lounge she had to pretend to be pro-life, lest she lose her job.  She worked in a conservative school district, and the other staff leaned to evangelical Christian (she did not).  She felt persecuted, and she didn’t think it was right.  I agreed.

Not because I was myself on the fence concerning abortion — I had always opposed it.  But because it seemed to me that if you are a government employee, you shouldn’t lose your job for agreeing with the laws of the government you serve.

[I should clarify here: She was not complaining that she couldn’t share her views with students — she had no desire or intention of doing that; given her subject and the ages of her students, abortion was not ever going to be discussed in the classroom in any way.  What she feared was that merely holding the beliefs that she did would cost her job.]

In studying history there comes an ugly moment when you suddenly understand how hopelessly immersed you are in your own culture.  Future people will wonder why you did not have more courage to stand for what you knew was right.  They will also wonder why you did not see how terribly wrong you were about principles that, to a later generation, seem entirely clear.  But the pull of your own time and place is too powerful.

That is how I feel about the law.

Product of late 20th-century USA, having grown up on patriotic songs and the Pledge of Allegiance and trips to Williamsburg and copies of the Constitution handed out at the bank in 1987 to commemorate the bicentennial . . . I’ve got this obsession with the Bill of Rights.  I am too late-century to believe it has been flawlessly administered, but I can’t shake the idea that it ought to be.

And enshrined in the 1st Amendment is the right to be wrong.  We call it freedom of religion.

Even though Congress is not supposed to make laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion, of course it does.  If your faith prescribes polygamy or ritual human sacrifice, no-can-do for you.  Morality informs the law, and no amount of arguing that your religion required you to embezzle that money will get you out of jail.  The majority will legislate the boundaries within which you may practice your beliefs.  The majority of course, being composed of people who are sometimes wrong.

(Example: Slavery.  Big mistake that one.  No slaves were emancipated by arguing in Confederate court, “My religion tells me I shouldn’t have to be a slave.”  But religious arguments — initially regarded as crazy fringe nutcase arguments — did eventually persuade the Union government to emancipate.  No comment on the timing.)

And then there’s the taxes.  We don’t get a discount for deciding we object to the nuclear weapons program or the latest foreign war.  I suppose you shut your eyes and pretend your particular contribution is all going to food stamps, and someone else’s cash covers the objectionable stuff.  Either that or you buy in to the whole “Whose face is on that coin?” thing.

[More limits on free exercise:  We can’t even get out of the draft selectively — either you’re 100% pacifist, or you sign on for all wars at all times — no concept of just warfare as a religious principle to be actively lived by able-bodied men of military age.]

So what’s the big deal with the reproductive-services-funding mandate?  Critics of the Church observe that the law is only asking for employers to pay for services that Americans overwhelmingly want, and that the medical industry considers perfectly good healthcare.  You’ve got to be some kind of crazy fringe nutcase to object to wholesome American goodness like Sterilization and Apple Pie.  (Correction: There might be a case for raising insurance rates on the people who eat the pie.)

And the answer is this: We grew up in late-20th America.  We know freedom of religion isn’t perfectly administered, but we still believe in it.  We practice it with compromises, but we do try to practice.  Jews who actually keep kosher are not therefore excused from paying all their taxes, just because Federal cafeterias serve those scary puffed-up Not Hebrew National hot dogs.  But we don’t therefore say the government has the power to require all employers everywhere pay for pork barbecue.

–> It would be understandable if some Jewish people found it objectionable to purchase a dozen bacon cheeseburgers for the guys at the sales meeting , even if there were other Jewish people who had no such reservations.  We’d get it.  We’d think that mandatory pork-purchasing — and being fined for failing to offer pork as a choice at the company cafeteria — was a stupid law.

We don’t think Chick-Fil-A should be required by law to be open on Sundays, even though other Christian businesses operate on those days.  Likewise B&H Photo has a constitutional right not to process sales from Friday sundown till Saturday sundown.  Even if there are employees who want to work during those times (and who need the hours!), or customers who wish to patronize the company during that time.  We have a right to eat on Sundays, but the government doesn’t mandate that all grocery stores and restaurants be open on those dates.

The trouble with the contraception-sterilization mandate is that our government has decided these items are more like clean water or public safety, and further, our government has decided that every private employer in the United States is now the public agency tasked with delivering these goods.

The majority of Americans do not believe contraception and sterilization are immoral.  They find the Catholic church is wrong wrong wrong on this matter.  That is fine.  But proper response is then, “Well, this is America.  You have a right to be wrong.

From the view of the majority, the  next question is: “What will happen if we let these crazy fringe minority of people be excused from directly purchasing items they find objectionable?

Our government says the answer is this:

Not directly purchasing your employees contraceptives would be like just giving them cash and saying, “Go buy your own bacon if it’s that important to you.”

And that would be wrong.  Because there are limits on the freedom of religion.  Your religion is known for not approving of certain products, but everyone else in America loves that product.  Look, a lot of the people at your own house of worship are discretely eating the bacon, and usually the Rabbi doesn’t say much about it . . . you’re a threat to order and morality.

You must not just give your employees the cash.  You must set up an account for unlimited purchases at Bacon Is Us.  Or be fined.  If you don’t like the stuff, don’t eat it.

Note that this is not about money.  It would be entirely reasonable for the HHS to require that conscientious objectors simply pay their employees the necessary amount of cash to cover the cost of these services.  That’s Living Wage 101, which the Catholic Church has been trying to explain since before ever the HHS saw light of day.

Employees could then purchase however much bacon contraception and sterilization coverage they wanted.   Exact same amount of employer outlay.  Exact same amount of contraception dispensed and reproductive powers eliminated.  Only, it would respect the right of American citizens to practice their own religion.


A Recipe for Poverty

A friend of mine lives in one of those helpful European countries with nationalized health care and social services and everything you could want.  And I know from experience that these systems can work pretty well for a lot of people.  I understand the appeal.

But my friend’s recent struggles to get the care she needs (nothing wildly expensive) leads me to think nationalization of social supports is a very bad solution. Here’s why:

Government-run services are much harder to shut down if they become corrupt, incompetent, or unsafe.  It takes, literally, an act of Congress.  (And then some).  In comparison, privately-run services can be boycotted by consumers, or in the case of safety-violations, legitimately shut down by government regulators.

When the system doesn’t work, there is nowhere else to turn.  Taxpayer-funded, universal-enrollment systems squeeze out private providers.  The money I could have spent on private fees has already been mailed to the government in taxes.  I no longer have that cash on hand.  The vastly diminished demand for privately-provided services also means therea are fewer private providers available to choose from.

“Universal” services shortchange the poor.  The supposed reason for creating nationalized services is so that the poor have access to the essentials they need, such as medical care or education.  The reality of government-run bureaucracies, however, is that they favor the upper-middle class — the people who have the resources and connections to work the system to their advantage.

How, then, to help the poor? By helping the poor.

Those who truly cannot provide for themselves do indeed need our assistance.  One can reasonably argue that in a large, diverse, and mobile society, government-provided alms are a legitimate way of caring for those who might otherwise be overlooked by private charities.

But the whole nation cannot need alms.  It is a mathematical joke.  We cannot all be poor all the time.

Health Insurance Regulations – Go Comment

The Impractical Catholic has a very practical link to how to submit your comments on the new health insurance regulations.  Click on his link, it is very easy from there.   You can scroll through the regulations to make sure you know what you are talking about, and then submit the comment of your choice.

Naturally I forgot to copy mine for posterity before it submitted, by my talking points were this:

  • I quoted the bit about how the goal of the religious exemption was to protect houses of worship.
  • I observed this was too narrow a view of “religious institution”, that did not represent the reality of religious institutions such as hospitals, schools, and other benevolent works.
  • I proposed a compromise, in which employees of such institutions could choose either to accept the employer-provided plan, or use a cash allowance of the same value to purchase the plan of their choice from another source.
  • In that way, the religious employer is not required to directly fund a health care plan that includes treatments contrary to its religious tenets, but employees remain free to choose some other plan as they see fit.

I didn’t say it, but it’s a bit like the difference between saying, “every employee shall be given a per-diem allowance to pay for travel expenses at a hotel or brothel”, versus specifying a per diem amount per day, and leaving it to the employee to decide where he wishes to lodge.

So that’s what I wrote.  Go write something yourself.  It is so easy and fast.  Really, it is.


Okay, here’s the link directly to that I followed from Impractical Catholic’s post.  Go.  Now.  Seriously.



Also: Reconsider giving your nine-year-old a blog on the same blogging program you yourself use.  I almost posted this on a hot-pink ProudKittyCat blog.  That woulda made the grandparents raise an eyebrow.

Hey, look, a Tollefsen article!

Yeah, it took me by surprise too.  You’ll be relieved to know it’s on a nice, quiet, non-controversial topic, Contraception and Healthcare Rights.  Here were my thoughts as I read:

  1. Yay!  A Tollefsen article my readers will actually like!
  2. Ooops.  Nope.  More mad readers.  Uh oh.
  3. No, never mind, I think it’s good after all.

So, er, read at your own risk.  It’s written philosophy-style, of course, so you’re constantly behind the curve, never really sure whether you agree with the guy or not.  But I’m pretty sure he makes sense.  In that special philosopher way.*



*Keep in mind that professional philosophers have to work day in and day out with people who aren’t strictly sure they exist, or perhaps are sure they exist, but also that they only turned up at the conference or the coffee bar on account of their molecules making them do that.  I’m not making fun.  That’s what a subset of real live tenured philosophy professors actually think.  I’ve taken the classes . . . I know.  You’d write reaaally caaarefullly if you had to present your papers to those people.    (I mean, for a living.  If you’re a student, you could just write normally and live with the B.)

More applied healthcare studies . . .

The Miracle of Mid-20th Century Medicine. Croup for baby –> bronchitis for mom.  But, through the magic of amoxicillin, I went from a person who got winded checking e-mail and had to go lay down, to a more or less normal person who cooks dinner and potters in the garden.  Within about three days.   I’m a person who crusades against antibiotic overuse, but there’s definitely a time and place.  Still not 100%, but getting there.

As it relates to health care reform:

a) I was definitely happy to have a $25 co-pay instead of a huge office-visit bill, in order to go see my GP and get dx’d and prescribed.  (Yay Publix pharmacy, though, for free oral antibiotics.  Not that amoxicillin is all that expensive to begin with.)

b) But really, there’s got to be a better, lower-cost model for delivering this kind of basic care.  Health insurance makes it easier for one to afford the office visit — mostly by spreading out the cost over time and among buyers — but it doesn’t actually lower the cost of care.   Just as I wouldn’t go to the ER for something that can be treated by the GP, there ought to be a widely-available step-down option for conditions like this one that didn’t require all the training and equipment of the GP even.

c) Prescription Drugs and Responsibility vs. Safety (Or: What do I do with my leftover cough suppressant?) The way we set up our prescription drug laws is a real cost-benefit trade-off.  In the interest of safety, the law, as I understand it, says that you’ve got to destroy perfectly good medicine if you don’t need it yourself for your current condition.   From a purely economic standpoint, this approach prevents harm, and therefore makes us wealthier.   But it also makes up poorer, because we have to destroy valuable property in the interest of safety.

Because I happen to be a responsible person related to a number of intelligent, responsible, honest people, I tend to lean towards liberalizing the law.   I travel in circles where you really could borrow some prescription cough supressant from your in-laws, and it would be done safely and honestly, and hey we even have the same GP so he could chart it.   I don’t know the details of what I am proposing.  But I know that a lot of people (not myself) violate the laws concerning sharing prescription drugs, because they find in their particular situation the law does more harm than good.

–> And it is damaging to the fabric of society, when large numbers of would-be law-abiding citizens feel it is acceptable to break the law, and in fact do so in order to do genuine good. Prescription drug laws are not like laws against robbery or murder.  Helping another person by freely giving them what their doctor has prescribed is not inherently evil.

Now I realize the law is there to protect against fraud, and to protect against the injury or death that can occur if you use the wrong medicine, or the right medicine in the wrong amounts.  I understand this. I do not propose we eliminate all safeguards.

What I’m saying is that our current laws don’t seem to quite match-up with our best interests.  As far as I can tell.

Topic on which I do not have a firm opinion at this time.  Still thinking about it.


We seem to be running a ‘healthcare’ theme to fit the national mood.  Trying to predict what will happen once everyone has affordable, decent health care coverage?  Here’s our experience:

-When a small child nearly sheared off her pinkie, why yes, we did spend two surgeries, PT, etc etc to get it back in order.  Knowing full well it was was only a pinkie.  Felt a little extreme, but on the other hand, we’re glad to have a pretty useful little finger in exchange.   If said finger hadn’t survived the attempt, we’d feel like we had been extravagant.  But it did and is faring quite well, so instead we feel like it was money well spent.   That said, sincerely doubt anyone — us or doctors — would have put such an effort into the little finger if we lived in a place where we expected to pay the full cost out of pocket.   We are quite grateful for insurance.

-When a much smaller child came down with croup in the middle the night (4th child, but our first run-in with croup), the first instinct was to run to the ER.   Which is close to home, well-run, and for which we have insurance.  But, would have involved being out for hours, and probably would have ended with “Your child isn’t on death’s door.  Go home and put her in the shower”.  Luckily we had a handy baby book  and DH remembered a co-worker telling us what to do for croup. Between the two, we were set.  Shower did the trick first time, out into cool wet night air did it the second time, and in between we (I) just stayed with her through the night to make sure nothing worse developed.  Next day I considered calling the pediatrician (no charge) for some advice and reassurance, but decided we had it under control and didn’t need to speak to the nurse in order to be told what we had already figured out.  Croup summary: Even with a kinda scary incident and inexpensive or free healthcare, the hassle factor outweighed the need for reassurance.  [I assure you, we’d be in the ER in a second if the baby was showing signs of distress.]

My brilliant economic analysis based on those anecdotes: I don’t have any idea what will happen post-Obamacare.  I know that good insurance does encourage us to seek treatment we otherwise might decline.  I think in many cases we end up with a better health care decision as a result.  More accurately: we end up with better health.   I also know that “just because it’s free” doesn’t always mean we’re going to seek the treatment or professional advice.

My best guess on health care usage is that we”ll see an increase in visits for more “minor” situations.  Including much more preventive care, which means we’ll see a corresponding decrease in last-minute emergency care for people who put off going to the doctor.  I think on the whole, this will help with our nation’s overall physical health.

I’m hopeful that the health care exchanges will help the economy by allowing individuals to start small businesses without the fear of losing corporate health care.  I’m concerned that this will be run about as well as we run our other government functions: sometimes quite well, but sometimes quite badly.

I think that financially it is all very much part of the current national habit.  Take a look at this year’s 1040 forms.  Have you noticed the creep in complexity over the past decade?   (Have you noticed that an awful lot of people don’t do their own taxes anymore?  Um, excuse me?  How have we gotten to the point that a worksheet of basic arithmetic has generated an entire profession?)  I think we have reached a point where we expect our government’s work to be complex and burdensome, and we expect to be in debt.   As long as we think all that is normal, we should not be surprised our economy isn’t so healthy.

Which reminds me, I need to go clean my house.   Happy Holy Week.

Health Care and the Living Wage

So when I started writing about the Just Wages, I intentionally left health care out of the picture.  Why?  Because health care is a virtually unlimited need.

I have no qualms about telling you that a person only truly needs so much living space, this much food, that much clothing, and so on.  It is important that we not make an impossible wreck of a straightforward moral teaching, by trying to tack on burdensome ‘extras’, as if love of neighbor were synonymous with ‘upper-middle class 21st century American’.

But how much health care does a just wage pay for?  Not so easy to define.   Set aside all the debates about which care is most helpful, and which is not helpful at all — those are medical debates.  Pretend you know what the useful stuff is, and focus on just the question of ‘how much’.

It can’t be nothing, we are certain of that.  But does the requirement extend to providing every care that might possibly help the worker-patient?  We have an arsenal of extraordinarily expensive tests, procedures and medicines that will extend life a few months or a few years; we have treatments that, in the event they work, will give back the recipient a nearly-normal lifespan, but for which the probability of sucess is quite low.

Those rescued months and years, those chances of success, are absolutely priceless.  I am easily persuaded that, as a society, we should value the medical progress that cutting-edge technology offers.  We should choose legal structures that encourage both doing the research, and making new forms of care more widely available.

But should every business owner consider it a normal cost of business, to provide wages that will cover high-cost-low-expected-return medical treatments?

I think that we need to fall back on the same pragmatic approach used for discerning just wages in other areas:

1) Remedy gross injustices. Keeping in mind that, say, access to a safe water supply remains a significant health problem for many workers around the world.  Employers should begin there.  I’m reminded of my friend Jenn Labit, whose factory in Egypt includes such basic amenities as a safe way to store lunches.  Sounds self-evident, but it was not the standard local business practice.

2) Use the love-neighbor-as-self standard. If senior management and members of the board are willing to accept a given level of health care, it is reasonable to assume the company is making an honest effort at providing a just wage for health care.

Beyond that?  We want to set up laws and regulations that make it possible for employers to efficiently provide a good health-care wage to workers.   We can disagree over the details — I’m not convinced the current legislation coming out of Congress is going to be an efficient and effective fix.   On the other hand, I’m entirely in love with my local water company, and do think that providing clean water is an appropriate use of community — read: local government — power.   Assuming it is done well, as it is where I live.

–> The imperative to pay a just wage works both ways.  On the one hand, it is up to local governments to set up community structures in a way that makes it affordable for businesses to pay a fair wage.  Think: utilities, transportation, policing, insurance regulations, medical safety standards.  On the other hand, the requirement to pay a just wage ought to spur businesses to use their importance in the community to push for change when the local government has fallen short of its mandate.

MS & The Dreadfulness of Being

So in my very sporadic reading lately, MS & assisted suicide seem to be frequent partners.   Take a look here, for example.  Ironic, since multiple scelrosis is not a terminal illness, and people who are in favor of assisted suicide and euthanasia usually use ‘terminal illness’ as the excuse for their position.

Which got me to thinking . . . what is it that makes MS dreadfuller-than-average?  Not worse, necessarily, but more dreaded?  A few brainstorms:

It won’t kill you. Not usually, anyway.  Catch a nice case of terminal cancer, and you can be dead in short order, without having to a lift a finger.  Come down with MS, and you’ll probably live about as long as previously planned.   So if you develop a death-wish, your disease won’t fulfill that desire for you.

MS is very unpredictable.  Will you develop horrid symptoms?  Which horrid symptoms?  Nobody knows.  Until diagnosis, you had a life map all planned out.  Now it isn’t just a matter of changing plans, but of not even knowing how to make your new plans.  Losing the illusion of control is very stressful, and stress can be depression-inducing.   Depression, of course, being what leads people to suicide.

The unpredictability can be very discouraging.  Unlike once-and-for-all disabilities, with MS you never know what is coming next.  Which makes it hard to know what rehab efforts will turn out to be worthwhile.   Your right hand is acting up — do you learn to write left-handed? What if your left hand goes next?  So you decide to try a nice dictation software — but what if your speech becomes affected?  And yet you feel a tad silly preparing to blink as your attendant points to a letterboard, when so far all you’ve got are some numb fingers . . .  It isn’t that the disabilities associated with MS are impossible, of course they aren’t.  People manage just fine with equally disabling non-MS conditions.  It’s that it is discouraging to work crazy hard to adapt to the current symptoms, knowing that at any moment all that work might come to naught, and you have to start over from the beginning again.

–> Curiously, people without MS-type conditions are also prone to having all their hard work wiped out in an instant.  It’s just that they enjoy a more insistent illusion of control than a person with a known dreadful disease.  No one says, “Darling, are you sure you want to take up archery?  What if you lose both your hands to that nasty strain of meningitis tomorrow?”

The unpredictability is hard on bystanders, too. The family members in particular who may have to provide care, pick up slack, and spend financial resources, also lack that pleasing notion of predictability.  There’s no getting into a comfortable routine, confidently determining that x,y & z are going to be needed, how can we provide for x, y & z in the most efficient, family-friendly way possible?

(And of course, your loved one *isn’t* likely to die soon, so you can count on this unpredictability to go on indefinitely, with none of that desperate emotional force of caring for a person actually on their death bed.  It is wearying.)

MS happens to adults.  Which means the raw parental passion isn’t there to fight desperately for the sick person.  Sordid truth: parents will fight to the bitter end on behalf of a sick or disabled child, in order to give that child every possible chance at life, to help that child thrive and live life to the fullest, despite whatever obstacles.  That’s how parenthood is.  (Not actually due to the disease in question — parents generally work crazy hard for all their children, regardless of health status.)   But by the time you develop MS, you usually don’t have Mom and Dad there to clear the path at every turn.   And there just aren’t many good substitutes for good ol’ Mom & Dad, when it comes to being a sick person.

And then of course, there’s the actual suffering.  MS has a deservedly bad reputation — it can be a truly vile illness.  Kinda like polio: a lotta people are exposed to the polio virus and are none the worse for wear; but if it decides get you, it can get you good.   Depending on your luck, patient and loved ones might actually have a hard time of it with MS, with the all the difficulties that come with any disabling injury or nasty illness.  Not all cases turn out to benign, or painless, or something-I-was-ready-to-deal-with.

So in all, it is a recipe for stress and discouragement.  This for the person with MS — who already is prone to depression just as a symptom of the disease, aside from everything else.  And then also for the near family members, the people who, when the depressed patient begins to think about suicide, are *supposed to be* the ones who help the patient get treatment for the depression.  Except that if you, the caregiving family member, are yourself suffering from situational depression, you are hardly in a position to think clearly on matters of life and death.

And hence MS shows up in the news, wound up in the politics of suicide and euthanasia.   Not because it is a terminal illness — precisely because it is *not* a terminal illness.

Killing People Is Not The Solution. Emotional support, social support, practical help with day-to-day problems: *these* are actual solutions to the problems related to MS.  [Hey, living wages, real health care reform, and accessible community design would be useful here! Hint hint.]   Treatment for depression, for whichever members of the family are suffering from depression, is essential.  A strong legal framework that protects vulnerable people from the temptation to suicide and euthanasia is part of the package, too.

–> Legislators, judges, and medical professionals who encourage death as the solution to discouraging medical problems are, frankly, a bunch of cowards.  Wicked evil cowards.   Deal with the actual problem, don’t try to sweep it under the tombstone.