THERE WAS a time in our nation, not so long ago, when states banned birth control. Doctors were arrested for so much as explaining to married women how they could prevent themselves from becoming pregnant.
That changed when the Supreme Court did what should have been done by state legislatures and put an end to those outrageous laws. Unfortunately, it did so in an activist ruling that created a constitutional right to privacy and laid the groundwork for an equally activist ruling that banned restrictions on abortion, but that’s another story.
Today’s story is that in the 47 years since then, birth control has become a routine part of life in our nation. In fact, while the Roman Catholic Church considers it a sin to use it, it’s hard to find anyone outside of the most extreme religious conservatives who believes it ought to be a crime.
What is still very much an open question is who should pay for birth control, as our nation wrestles with whether all-you-can-use medical care should be considered a right and, if a right, precisely what medical care should be included.
You might have missed the distinction — who should pay for your care as opposed to whether it should be against the law for you to receive that care — if you showed up at an Obama campaign rally in Colorado last week.
There, Sandra Fluke — who became a household name earlier this year after she was pilloried for testifying before Congress about the need for free contraceptives — warmed up the crowd with her misrepresentation of the ongoing debate. “Even though it’s 2012,” she said, “we’re still having the debates that we thought were won before I was even born, debates about access to contraception and whether a woman has the right to make her own health-care decisions.”
Rather than correcting that conflation, President Obama drove the point home by declaring of the Republicans, “When it comes to a woman’s right to make her own health-care choices, they want to take us back to the policies more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century.”
I’m not sure when it became so difficult to distinguish between the right to do something and the right to have something you do subsidized. The distinction seems so obvious, so clear and so, well, distinct, that it’s hard to imagine how anyone could miss it — or why anyone who wants to have an honest debate would deliberately confuse the two.
It’s like saying that my right to a free press means you must to buy a newspaper. Or that my right to religious freedom means you have to subsidize my church. (Or, to move beyond money, that your right to be free from religion means that people of faith have no right to hold elective office.)
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised to see liberals pretend that our refusal to purchase their birth-control pills for them is tantamount to prohibiting them from making the purchase.
But conservatives can be just as disingenuous about the distinction.
Perhaps you’ve heard my favorite example: Poor children should have the same right as wealthy children to go to a private school, they say, as though the government prohibited poor children from attending private schools.
Of course, what they mean is that someone else should pay for poor children to go to private schools.
Actually, if you read the legislation they propose instead of their talking points, you’ll discover that what they mean is that someone else should pay middle-class and wealthy children to go to private schools, and well, if a couple of poor kids happen to benefit, we can live with that. But let’s not pick nits.
True, the pay-parents-to-abandon-the-public-schools argument is not the same as what the liberals are doing with birth control.
Imagine that the government already doled out free birth-control pills. But they’re generic, and the liberals want brand-name pills. They have a right to have us buy their brand-name birth-control pills for them. Because, who knows, they might be more effective. If they’re used correctly.
That is the argument made by people advocating vouchers or tax credits or whatever you want to call direct or indirect public subsidies for private schools.
Private schools might be more effective than the public schools that the taxpayers provide for every child in this state. If they’re good private schools — as some are and some are not. And if they’re used correctly — that is, if the parents are involved and the students apply themselves.
It’s perfectly legitimate to debate whether students would get a better education in private schools than in public schools. Or whether the non-parents like me who pay the bulk of the bill for the public schools should hand over extra money for parents to bypass those schools and send their children to schools that don’t even have to meet the standards that we set for our public schools.
But of course those aren’t the questions that the private-school advocates want to debate. The answer to the first one is ambiguous at best, owing at least in part to the huge disparity in quality among private schools. And when all those senior citizens and non-parents understand that the debate is really about reducing the taxes that parents pay, they’re not as likely to be sympathetic.
So like anybody who’s trying to sell an idea that isn’t universally embraced, advocates frame what they’re hawking in terms of rights. And not just any rights. Rights that everybody supports and wants to preserve.
Rights that aren’t the least bit at risk.
Like the right to send your kids to whatever school you can afford. Or to use whatever birth-control method you can afford.
It’s not honest. But it’s a lot easier than convincing people based on the facts.
Ms. Scoppe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (803) 771-8571.