Colorado’s majority Democrats passed, and Governor Polis signed, Senate Bill 189, which “expands health insurance coverage for abortion, sterilization and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases,” Colorado Politics summarizes. Paradoxically, by exempting some religious people from some of its demands, the law violates the rights of non-religious people—a problem usually ignored.
Subsection 26 of the bill establishes that “all individual and group health benefit plans issued or renewed in this state shall provide coverage for the total cost of abortion care.” However, “an employer is not obligated to provide the coverage required by this subsection (26) if . . . providing the coverage conflicts with the employer’s sincerely held religious beliefs.”
The first obvious problem is that the law requires state bureaucrats and perhaps judges to pretend to read minds in order to determine which “religious beliefs” are “sincerely held” and which are not. Determining the sincerity of people’s beliefs, religious or otherwise, is just not a proper function of government, at least in this context. (I can imagine cases of criminal law, custody disputes, and torts where religious beliefs might be relevant.) Leave it to the legislature to make impossible demands of those charged with implementing a law.
Even worse, the law straightforwardly violates the rights of non-religious people and of religious people who have non-religious reasons to reject the mandates in question. By giving preference specifically to religious beliefs—which I take to be beliefs rooted in supernaturalism—the law denigrates non-religious beliefs. Thus, the law violates both the right to freedom of conscience and the right to equal protection under the law of people with such relevant non-religious beliefs.
What sort of non-religious beliefs am I talking about? An employer might, for example, believe that expanded coverage would make health insurance too expensive. Or an employer might think it’s unfair to force employees who don’t need abortions to subsidize (through their insurance premiums) those who do. Those are both perfectly reasonable, non-religious reasons to oppose the mandated coverage.
The law in effect says that if you have a good, reality-based reason to oppose the mandate, you’re out of luck. Only if you have a faith-based, mystical or religious “reason” to oppose the mandate are you protected. Senate Bill 189 thus constitutes an assault on reason itself.
Am I saying, then, that the law should not exempt any people with religious beliefs from the mandate? No! I’m saying that, if the law exempts people from the mandate on the basis of belief, it should not favor religious beliefs over any other beliefs. I would be happy on this point if the law simply struck the word “religious” (and preferably also the words “sincerely held”).
Some people might ask, “Is it worth passing the law if it’s just going to say that anyone who thinks it’s a bad idea doesn’t have to follow it?” That’s a fair question.
The deeper issue is that I disfavor insurance mandates across the board. People have a moral right to freely negotiate with willing providers the terms of an insurance policy. It’s just not the proper business of government to step in and dictate the terms of health insurance.
Employers should not even be involved in health insurance. The main reason they are is that, decades ago, federal lawmakers imposed idiotic tax incentives driving the employer-provided system. We should unwind the system of employer-provided insurance and free up the market between private health insurance companies and their customers. Then, if some people want to pay extra to insure against the costs of a potential abortion, they are welcome to seek out such a policy. (Personally I don’t think that makes any financial sense.)
Perhaps you worry that, absent mandated abortion coverage baked into health insurance, the poor won’t be able to afford abortions they need. If that’s your position, your solution should not be to create a subsidy program via a de facto tax on insurance policies. Rather, you should call for direct government subsidies of abortions. That would be a more honest approach, one without all the nonsense surrounding insurance mandates. Or—imagine this—you could call on private charities to fill the gaps. You could even voluntarily contribute to such a charity.
Governor Jared Polis told Colorado Politics about his signing SB 189 and other bills related to abortion, “Today is really about . . . standing up to protect freedoms that are under attack, sadly, in many other states. . . . We believe in the ability of individuals to make their own decisions.”
But, in signing SB 189, the party attacking freedom is Polis himself. He is attacking freedom of contract and freedom of conscience, as well as undermining equal treatment under the law. Hopefully in the future the legislature and the governor will consistently protect people’s freedoms rather than pay them lip service.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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