The totally confused contraception debate

I have been following the contraception mandate debate in the United States, and am somewhat amazed by how unrelated the discussion is to what the new contraception rule actually requires. The rule does not require religious employers to provide contraception coverage for their employees. Despite this, the usual suspects on the right-wing and even Pew polling have been participating in a debate about whether requiring religious employers to provide contraception coverage is the right thing to do.

Here is what the new contraception rule requires. Non-religious employers must provide health insurance plans that cover employee contraception. Religious employers can opt out of such plans entirely, and if they do so, the insurer will be forbidden from charging more than they would for a non-contraception plan. Outside of the religious employer, the insurance company will be made to contact employees directly and offer them free contraception coverage.

So the question becomes: what exactly is the objection here? Generally, one might say that someone somewhere will have to foot the bill for the free contraception side plan: if not the religious employers, then other people insured by the same company. But the unique thing about contraception coverage is that it pays for itself through reducing unplanned pregnancies which are much more costly. So, there is no additional cost springing up elsewhere that someone is secretly paying.

The only other possible objection then is that the religious employers do not want to pay in dollars that may eventually find themselves being exchanged for contraception. But when you get to this level of objection, it becomes so abstract and confusing as to be meaningless. You cannot actually determine what any given dollar does or does not go to when you pay it into a giant insurance pot. Money is fungible and there is no such thing as “your dollars” once it goes into the insurer’s account. If there is something objectionable about paying dollars into any entity that then pays dollars out for contraception, then buying into insurance at all is a problem. Even if your insurance plan does not cover contraception, it is almost certain that the insurer offers plans to someone else that does include that coverage, meaning the dollars are already going into a pot of money that partially gets used to buy birth control pills.

More than that, anyone who pays federal taxes is already involved in sending money into an entity that directs some of it into buying contraception. There is nothing unique or novel about doing it again for insurance.

Of course, we know the debate is just some sort of culture war wedge issue manufactured to stir up controversy of various sorts. But it is one the flimsiest and most misleading debates I have ever seen. There is no contraception mandate for religious employers. The free contraception side plans will not cost anyone anything. And any objections about having to pay into a pot of money that buys some contraception — an objection I have not actually seen articulated by anyone — is totally non-unique since all religious employers with insurance already do this. Sadly enough, this issue has been so misconstrued and misrepresented that even liberals are trying to defend the contraception mandate instead of pointing out that there is no such mandate.