A Right to Free Contraception? The Problem with Progressive “Rights”

October 24, 2017

by Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg


Linda Greenhouse, writing for The New York Times earlier this month, laments: “On Contraception, It’s Church Over State.” Greenhouse opens with the statement “Saudi women are gaining the right to drive. American women are losing the right to employer-provided birth control.” The problems with her argument begin immediately.

Modern rights ideology necessarily proceeds from the false premise of progressivism without regard for the authentic nature of a right. Once something is conceded to progressives — such as a “right to free contraception” — to rescind it violates their ideology. Lost in the ideological steamroll of this particular conversation, however, is the nature of a right and the morality of contraception.

We ought to begin by a recovery of the truth of what C.S. Lewis quipped about progressivism: “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” The Trump administration has had the presence of mind to recognize a few of the wrong roads down which we have headed, and it would befuddle the mind of the ideological progressive to realize that we are actually progressive in a good and true sense if we return to right reason concerning rights grounded in the natural law.

Our Founding Fathers grounded the Constitution in three inalienable God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We can discuss later how modern rights ideology has been inverted to claim the rights to the culture of death, moral slavery, and the pursuit of misery, but let us at least recognize that the Great American Experiment flowed out of the true natural rights of man which have a primary and secondary source. The primary source of our rights is our Creator, the one who made us. Certainly the maker of a thing is the one who has the authority to dictate and promulgate the reasons for its governance.

Secondly, natural rights flow out of human nature. We all have a common destiny and certain faculties, powers, and capacities out of which an authentic notion of true rights can be discerned. By this process of discernment, we have come to discover the natural law. We refer to the natural law as that law written on man’s heart by which he participates in the divine law. Authentic natural rights flow from the natural law.

Thomas Aquinas defines a just law as “an ordinance of reason promulgated by competent authority for the sake of common good.” To promulgate a just law properly requires the right use of the mind where truth is not conformity to the popular voice but a conformity to reality. In the consideration of true rights, as expressed by Thomas Aquinas and our Founding Fathers, it would be very easy to see that there is no natural right to such a thing as contraception. In fact, such a notion is unjust because it is an attempt to thwart nature and does not contribute to the common good. Furthermore, the idea that an employer ought to pay for it is a perversion of thought unimaginable in previous ages.

The disturbing line of illogic Greenhouse tries to peddle is that a theocracy like Saudi Arabia can never become civil, and that employer-provided contraception is a mark of civil society. She makes the claim that the issue of driving in Saudi Arabia “signifies a theocratic kingdom’s bow to the inexorable onslaught of modernity,” and that to remove the mandate of employer-provided contraception “is a cynical bow to the forces of reaction against modernity.” She summarizes objections against contraception by asserting that the “problem they have is with what birth control signifies: empowering women.”

The plain truth is that contraception is far from any kind of natural right and, in fact, is very problematic both for the common good and the individual. The truth is that the marital act has for its primary purpose the conception of a new citizen, and to thwart that end is an act contrary to nature. This alone disqualifies it as any kind of natural right, though a consideration of the numerous negative consequences of contraception — the many serious health side effects it carries and the effect the sexual promiscuity it encourages has on society — further drives home the point.

Upon this review, it becomes clear that Greenhouse’s column is merely another attempt by progressives to invent false rights. Her readers, however, should not be fooled. Far from being a right, contraception is a technological contrivance to thwart the natural law, and in the end it has done great damage to the common good, the civility of our declining society, and the individual women who use it. To make employers pay for it is to add insult to injury, a policy this current administration is well advised to move away from.


Steven Jonathan Rummelsburg is a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, a writer in residence and teacher of philosophy and theology at Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta. He is also a senior contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and has written for numerous venues on matters of faith, culture and education.

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