The Contraceptive Mandate and Animal Suffering

In his latest Project Syndicate column, ethicist Peter Singer takes a novel approach to religiously-based requests for exemptions from following laws that serve to relieve suffering. Singer compares the objections of Jewish and Muslim groups in the Netherlands to a law that would require all animals to be stunned before slaughter.

These groups claim the law would limit their religious freedom by altering mandated slaughter rituals which require the animal be conscious when killed. For Singer, the proper alternative is for the religiously observant to abstain from eating meat. Eating meat is not mandated by Islam or Judaism and, if they don’t eat meat, there is no need to slaughter animals humanely or cruelly.   

The Dutch Parliament—in an action that calls to mind the Obama offer to Catholic hospitals of a year to figure out how to honor both their religious beliefs and the state’s desire to eliminate the suffering and poor health outcomes created by the lack of access to contraception—have “given the leaders a year to prove that their religions’ prescribed methods of slaughter cause no more pain than slaughter with prior stunning. If they cannot do so, the requirement to stun before slaughtering will be implemented.”

Singer then addresses the religious freedom argument made by Catholic hospitals and concludes that “the Obama administration’s requirement to provide health insurance that covers contraception does not prevent Catholics from practicing their religion. Catholicism does not oblige its adherents to run hospitals and universities.”

He suggests that the better course of action for the Catholic hospitals—if they decide not to provide contraceptive coverage—would be to “hand over its hospitals and universities to bodies that were willing to provide the coverage.” He adds that “Catholics would still be free to worship and follow their religion’s teachings.”

In a sense, such an act would probably be more consistent with Catholic teaching than hanging on to the hospitals and not providing any number of services that people need to be free from unnecessary suffering: voluntary sterilization when you have all the children you can afford; assisted reproduction when you long to have a child, the ability to end your life with dignity when the pain has become unmanageable psychologically or physically. Nothing says that other nonprofits could not run those hospitals as well or with as much care for the poor as the Catholics do; we do not have a lock on goodness. 

Singer’s position reminds me of one taken by Dan Maguire in a speech at Georgetown on Catholic education. Dan suggested that perhaps it was time for the Catholics to get out of the education business if they could not fully respect academic freedom. He noted that in the old days, monks served as the original firemen. When a fire happened, the monastery bell rang and they all rushed off to the bucket brigade. This was a religious act.

However, when the state and the community took up fire fighting, the monks abandoned the bucket brigade. Perhaps Dan and Peter have it right. If there are services that no one else can do that serve humanity, then it might be a religious obligation to provide them; but when others can and are doing it—and are willing to provide the services you won’t—perhaps the most ethical thing you can do is to turn the services over to them. You are not abandoning the mission, you are simply enabling it to be better fulfilled by someone other than you.

Conservative Catholics have responded to Singer like the proverbial stuck pig. Wesley Smith, over at First Things and in numerous other blogs has accused Singer of an “advocacy sleight of hand” in equating freedom of religion with “freedom to worship.” Smith and his crowd want not only an expanded definition of what is to be a religion, they want any activity a group or individual claims is “religious” to fall outside the scope of government control. He says “the exercise of one’s religion involves how the faithful live their lives outside of the church, synagogue, temple, or mosque—whether as individuals or in juridical associations and religion-related institutions and organizations.” The perfect argument for employment discrimination, for example.

But for my money, Singer and the Dutch got it right. Singer quotes the leader of the Dutch Party for the Animals, Marianne Thieme, who asserts “Religious freedom stops where human or animal suffering begins.”