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Thursday, 12 July 2007

Jim Flynn's suggestion: Contraception and Religious Freedom

When I was teaching the history of early modern philosophy at Otago last year, one of my students told me I reminded them of Dr Jim Flynn. This was supposed to be a compliment. Flynn was highly regarded at Otago even those who considered themselves conservatives had good things to say about Flynn. I knew him by reputation only, having never had the privilege of meeting him. I did however learn one thing about Flynn during my stint at Otago: he is a left wing activist who is militantly secular.

Recently Flynn has attracted negative attention for these comments.

"I do have faith in science, and science may give us something that renders conception impossible unless you take an antidote,"

"You could of course have a chemical in the water supply and have to take an antidote. If you had contraception made easier by progress, then every child is a wanted child."

Flynn here seems to view a situation where contraception was placed in the water supply an example of progress. Many have interpreted this to mean that Dr Flynn believes that the government should put contraceptive in the water supply? Flynn has claimed this is a misrepresentation of his comments.

Dr Flynn told the Otago Daily Times he was merely trying to illustrate a point,
not seriously suggesting contraception in the water supply. Considering the opposition to fluoride in the water, such a scheme would never go ahead, he said.
But to have a contraception device that meant women had to take action to get pregnant instead of having to take a pill not to get pregnant, "would be wonderful". "It doesn't seem to me too controversial at all."
What really bothers me in this quote is that Flynn only states that such a policy is politically unfeasible. He does not appear to think it is unjust or violates people’s rights. I think this fact illustrates something important about the political culture in which we live.

First let me state why I believe a policy of putting contraceptives in the water supply is unjust. It violates a persons freedom of religion. Let me explain: As a Christian Theist I believe that every person has a sacred responsibility to carefully consider ones conscience and act in accord with what one considers to be Gods will. The existence of this responsibility entails a freedom or right to carry it out. Now according to Roman Catholic teaching artificial contraception is a mortal sin which violates natural law. While this teaching is popularly associated with Catholicism Catholics are not alone in believing it, many of the Protestant Reformers also held this view, and many Protestants still do. Now I happen to disagree with them. I do not think contraception violates the law of God. However, I do acknowledge that these people believe sincerely that God commands this and because of this they have a right to refrain from using contraception if they choose. They have right not just to opt out of contraceptive practises but to not opt in in the first place.

Now, there is an obvious objection to this argument: freedom of religion is a only prima facie right. Consider Sati a Hindu practise whereby a wife is burnt alive at her husband’s cremation. This practise was justly suppressed by the British in India. This however shows that freedom of religion is only a prima facie right and it can be overridden by other more weighty principles such as “do not kill innocent human beings”.

But this is precisely where I see the battle lines being drawn in contemporary culture. While there is a broad consensus that there exists a prima facie right to freedom of religion. There is no consensus on when is it appropriate to override this prima facie right? Are you permitted to do so only when the religion advocates engaging in a seriously immoral action like homicide? Or is the promotion of social utility sufficient to override it? To make things specific: If it is good that every child be a wanted child is this good of sufficient weight to override the prima facie right to freedom of religion?

This brings me to a crucial point: How one answer’s this question in fact depends on the theological perspective one adopts.

Suppose one believes that belief in God is irrational on par with belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy and those traditional views about sexuality and procreation are simply homophobic misogynist bigotry. Suppose one is also a secular utilitarian and believes our duties consist not of following commands but of doing whatever maximises net utility. Then one is not going to grant the freedom to follow what one believes God commands a huge amount of weight in ones reasoning. Suppose a person stated that he was opposed to a utility maximising policy because he thought Santa Claus had informed him that Aryans’ were the superior race and this policy prevented him and his community living in accord with that belief. How many people would cease to support the policy? Most I think would be unmoved.

On the other hand suppose one believes that God exists, that he issues commands to human beings that constitute our moral duties and that God holds people accountable for how well they discharge these duties. Then one will grant the freedom to act in accord with what believes to be Gods will much higher weight. Moreover, seeing one sees morality as “a set of rules or precepts of conduct, constituting a divine law”[1] one will not find utilitarian justifications of social policy plausible.

Returning to the policy of putting contraception in the water supply from the perspective of some secular leftists there is nothing unjust about this policy. True the policy violates freedom of religion if that freedom is understood in Christian context. However, if we remove this right from this context and replace it with a secular context freedom of religion can be re-contextualised. Re-contextualised in a manner where Roman Catholicism does not fall under it. And where the freedom to be an evangelical protestant is viewed the same way current society views a Nazis freedom to be a Nazi something begrudging deferred to when the matter is not to serious, but easily overridden by important social policy.

[1] Alan Donagan, The Theory of Morality, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), 6.


  1. Interesting post. As a protestant who agrees with The Pope on this one I too am always alarmed when I hear this sort of thing.

    I'm glad you believe people should have a right to act according to conscience on this one.

    However there was one thing you said that latently sent a message that I hope you weren't intending: That contraception gives us the ability to choose when we would like to have a child, thus enabling the categories of wanted/unwanted.

    I quote;

    "If it is good that every child be a wanted child is this good of sufficient weight to override the prima facie right to freedom of religion?"

    I don't think you meant to do this, but you still did it.

    People have the power to choose when they would like to have a child without contraception. That lies in the power to choose whether or not to have sex. Even David Farrar made this admission in his post on the topic.

  2. a.j.

    No I was not intending to send that message. The *if* at the start of the quote is an attempt to grant my opponents position for the sake of argument.

    I have four kids, two I have adopted and are the result of crisis pregnancies. The other two which are biologically mine were both unplanned. I do not regret them existing and find them a source of joy. So I would be wary of adopting the conditional in actuality.


  3. I doubt theology matters that much. Even if I think religious belief is like belief in Santa Claus, I might still think people have a right not to have their reproductive workings messed around with by the government. And even if I think morality is a divine law, I might still be a utilitarian (William Paley might have held something like this position).


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