Friday, February 3, 2012

Market complicity and contraception insurance

I've been reading Al Barrera's new book Market Complicity and Christian Ethics, to review it for Faith and Economics. Al makes an elaborate argument in the style of Catholic Scholasticism that any time we make a purchase that facilitates some kind of harm to others, however indirectly, we are culpable for that harm. The degree of guilt depends on the directness of the causation. So buying a sweatshirt implicates us in the sweatshops of Saipan, and buying a Japanese car makes us guilty for the plight of the unemployed American autoworker.

As a Protestant and an economist, I find this position rather extreme. As a Protestant, I resist being held guilty for decisions made by others without my direct participation, decisions that could have gone another way. As an economist, I have done research on this issue (for my dissertation, a long time ago) and found that boycotting bad companies has no effect on their behavior without some direct political action to go along with a collective boycott. Without such action, my personal boycott has no discernible effect.

Reading Al's book helps me understand the Catholic bishops' position on the requirement that non-church religious institutions must provide insurance coverage for contraception to their employees. The bishops hold that contraception is immoral, and they don't want to indirectly facilitate others' decisions to use it by buying the insurance. This would involve them in the guilt of contraceptive use.

But understanding the position does not mean I agree with it. I do not believe the bishops are guilty of contraception because they buy health insurance that includes contraceptive coverage. Nor do I believe that contraception is immoral. In this I stand with not only almost all Protestant Christians, but also almost all Catholic laypeople, who research shows use contraception at the same rate as the rest of the population, in spite of the bishops' teaching.

The Obama Administration has in this case chosen to stand with those who see this new rule as promoting the health of women, rather than those few Catholics who see contraception as wrong and market complicity as real. The larger meaning is this: the biggest part of Jesus' public ministry involved healing people. It seems that is what he spent most of his time doing. Seeing to people's health is an important ministry, and health care and health insurance are not just regular private economic goods like chocolates and bicycles and car repairs. Finally we are committing ourselves to taking care of each other as a community. We will get some things wrong in the process, but the commitment is of surpassing importance. The bishops should stand up for that commitment.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I feel awkward being the first to respond to this rather old blog, but I can't help myself. To begin with, my understanding is that the Obama Administration is not forcing religious organizations to provide insurance coverage for contraception (and abortifacients), it is mandating that their policies provide contraceptives for free to the employees. Does the professor understand the difference? I have not read nor followed Prof. Tiemstra for years, but right now I again remember one of the reasons why, after two years at Calvin, I transferred to another school.