Beyond the Spectrum

by Peter Cannavo
Associate Professor of Government

In the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down, on the grounds of privacy, a Connecticut law banning the sale of contraceptives (  Griswold of course took place during the 1960s, when American society, and industrialized nations in general, experienced a massive social revolution – affecting individual liberties, sexual norms, gender relations, and racial equality – that basically created the world we live in today.  The legacy of the Sixties continues to be fought over, particularly around issues like abortion and equal rights for gay people (though of course abortion is legal and full LGBT rights are becoming more and more of a reality), but practices such as the use of birth control or the right of women to participate as full citizens and enter the workforce have won widespread acceptance in society at large.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, “Virtually all women (more than 99%) aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method.”  (

Though the Catholic Church has officially opposed contraception, there has been widespread reporting that 98% of Catholic women have used contraception.  This is actually misleading, as the Washington Post’s Fact Checker reports (

However, the more meaningful figure, as reported by the Guttmacher Institute and noted by Fact Checker, also substantiates the acceptance of contraception: 68 percent of sexually active Catholic women who are not pregnant, post-partum or trying to get pregnant have used “highly effective methods” of birth control: 32 percent relied on sterilization, 31 percent relied on the birth control pill, and five percent relied on the IUD (

Given the widespread acceptance of contraception, it is rather jarring that one of our two major political parties may very well nominate a candidate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who is not only well-known for his opposition to same-sex marriage but also has some strong positions on birth control.  Santorum has said that he will use the Presidential bully pulpit to inveigh against contraception (, and he is OK with individual states outlawing contraception (

Santorum’s candidacy for the Republican nomination of course resonates with those voters angered by the Obama Administration’s efforts to require health insurance plans to cover contraceptives without a co-pay. Obama had earlier issued a requirement that religiously affiliated charities and higher education institutions pay for their employees’ birth control.  He revised this plan by requiring that health insurance companies, not the employers themselves, pay for contraceptives (, though admittedly in the case of self-insured institutions, like the Catholic hospital my wife Helen works for, there may be little difference in the end.

This compromise was not enough to mollify Catholic Church authorities, other religious officials, and political conservatives.   The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging support for a bill sponsored by Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt (, along with Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), that would allow private insurers to opt out of the requirement if “providing coverage (or, in the case of a sponsor of a group health plan, paying for coverage) of such specific items or services is contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor, issuer, or other entity offering the plan.”  The measure would not allow the Federal government to “require an individual or institutional health care provider, or authorize a health plan to require a provider, to provide, participate in, or refer for a specific item or service contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions” (  Sponsors and supporters of the proposed legislation, including many Republicans, argue that it would protect freedom of religious exercise and conscience from intrusion by the government.  The bill itself cites Thomas Jefferson’s championship of religious freedom.

The religious liberty argument has been oft repeated of late.  However, it is deeply problematic for several reasons.  First of all, what if a woman employed by a religiously affiliated institution is herself not a member of the institution’s sponsoring denomination or belongs to that religion but disagrees with its official policy?  She has to either bear the cost of birth control herself (and some highly effective methods are expensive – in the case of the pill, the cost runs from $160-600 per year, and an IUD involves an upfront cost of $500 to $1,000; see, or she must either forgo such birth control methods or find another job.  She therefore faces what might be a serious imposition on her own fundamental beliefs and practices.  Moreover, the proposed legislation, as a number of critics have pointed out, might go beyond birth control, as it opens the way to employers denying coverage for various medical services because of moral or religious objections to such things as blood transfusions.

More interestingly, the right of religious liberty is itself not absolute.  I first want to turn to John Locke (1632-1704), an English philosopher who is one of the founders of the liberal tradition, was an early voice for religious liberty, and was also a direct inspiration for the U.S. Declaration of Independence and many of our own conceptions of rights.

In his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration (, Locke argued that the state should largely stay out of religion and tolerate most Christian faiths, as well as Jews, Muslims, and pagans, so long as religious groups do not threaten public order or seek to violate the rights of others.  However, he advocated denying tolerance to atheists, because their lack of fear of divine retribution made them untrustworthy in oaths and contracts; denying tolerance to Catholics, because of their adherence to the Pope, at that time a foreign “prince” with considerable secular power; and, ironically, denying tolerance to the religiously intolerant themselves.  Whatever the merits of Locke’s positions here, his underlying argument is correct, namely that that in certain cases of compelling state interest, religious liberty could be circumscribed.  For example, though Locke saw no problem in tolerating animal sacrifice, as we tolerate the killing of animals for other reasons, he laid down an important exception:

But if peradventure such were the state of things that the interest of the commonwealth required all slaughter of beasts should be forborne for some while, in order to the increasing of the stock of cattle that had been destroyed by some extraordinary murrain, who sees not that the magistrate, in such a case, may forbid all his subjects to kill any calves for any use whatsoever?

The state could therefore prohibit all killing of cattle, for religious or any other reason, religious objections notwithstanding.  Again, a compelling state interest.

State interests of course must not be invoked lightly, and the courts give close scrutiny to any infringement on religious liberty.  Indeed, religious practices are generally given additional latitude.  Yet, I would argue that there is indeed a compelling state interest in ensuring that women have access to contraception on a par with their access to other medical services.  Access to contraception prevents unwanted pregnancy, it allows parents to properly space their children, and it reduces the frequency of abortion.  Moreover, birth control pills may be used for medically necessary reasons other than contraception.  But most importantly, the role of the state, as Locke and the liberal tradition have suggested, is to protect the basic liberty of the individual.  As more recent political theorists like John Rawls have argued, the exercise of individual liberty includes not only freedom of speech, assembly, and conscience, but also the freedom to formulate and pursue one’s own plan of life, consistent with a similar liberty for others.  Such freedom rests on a strong measure of individual autonomy, as well as access to basic material resources that make such autonomy possible.  A woman’s autonomy surely includes the ability to control her own sexuality and fertility, to decide if and when to be a parent, and to have access to medical devices or services that make such control possible.

My own views tend somewhat less toward liberalism than toward civic republicanism, but here there is also a strong argument for a compelling state interest in making birth control available to women.  Civic republicanism emphasizes the importance of citizens to have the virtues and the opportunities to actively participate in the collective self-government of the community and, through political deliberation, determine and promote the common good.  One of the foundations for republican citizenship is the freedom of individuals from personal ties of dependence on powerful political or economic interests.  Earlier republicans argued that a citizen whose livelihood is dependent on an employer or landlord, or on the good graces of a particular government official, would not promote the common good of the community but the interests of his or her patron.  Such a dependent citizen would not exercise civic virtue.  Partly for this reason, republicans like Thomas Jefferson favored a society of small, independent property owners as a safeguard of civic virtue and the common good.  Nineteenth century republicans also opposed wage labor and instead favored self-employment.  Now, some of these views are quaint or outmoded in a modern, industrialized society, but the importance of personal independence still resonates.  That independence will not likely come from owning a small farm and need not involve self-employment, but one could argue that control over one’s own body – and perhaps especially in the case of sexuality and procreation, where one could otherwise become subordinate to the wishes of a spouse or partner – presents an analogy to the earlier ideal of economic independence.  Moreover, if women are to participate in the workforce and the public square as full citizens, they must be able to determine when and if they will bear children and become parents.  And the same goes for their procreative partners.  Any attempt to infringe on the access of a woman to birth control and other family planning services is basically a recipe for second-class citizenship.  Some may have strong religious objections to such services, but I would argue such objections should not carry the day.


by Peter Cannavo
Associate Professor of Government 

Teaching Government 117: Introduction to Political Theory, makes me think about political labels and the standard left-to-right spectrum.  Political theory can be either deathly dull or extremely intimidating for the newbie and I try to bring it alive by connecting it with contemporary political debate.  I also try to introduce my students to a range of political perspectives, including a perspective that most of them have probably never heard of – civic republicanism.

Civic republicanism, which focuses on civic virtue, political engagement, individual economic independence, a strong sense of community, and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good, was a prominent perspective in the United States during the Founding and early Republic.  Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams were profoundly influenced by the republican tradition, which goes back to Rousseau, Montesquieu, Machiavelli, and Aristotle.  So were later political leaders and public intellectuals like Frederick Douglass.   Two famous Britons, Mary Wollstonecraft, the founder of feminism, and Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, disliked one another, but they both drew on the republican and Aristotelian idea that a healthy political society should cultivate a certain type of character in its citizens.  (The political philosopher Michael Sandel is probably one of the most prominent and articulate proponents of republicanism, particularly in his 1995 book, Democracy’s Discontent.)

What’s interesting is that civic republicanism defies familiar political labels and the standard political spectrum.  Civic republicans are like conservatives in that they favor a strong sense of community and emphasize the importance of private property ownership (because it enables someone to be more empowered as a citizen), but they are like liberals or progressives in that they favor a more egalitarian distribution of wealth, are willing to combine private property rights with government regulation, and can see civic value in the extension of marriage to include same-sex couples.  In fact, some republicans emphasize their common ground with conservatives, while others emphasize common ground with liberals or progressives.  Since republicans have also favored a strong role for local government and local political participation, they even have some commonalties with some libertarians.  Civic republicans, however, are not enthusiastic about an unfettered free market and its disruptive effects on society. One can find in Jefferson’s writings a defense of private property and local government as well as a suspicion of capitalism and a call for progressive taxation.  It perhaps surprises my students that there is a political perspective that can simultaneously support marriage equality and higher taxation on the wealthy and also government support for faith-based charities.

I finish the semester with civic republicanism and also relate it to environmentalism, which shares lot with the republican tradition and similarly defies the standard political spectrum. My environmentalist students may be surprised that their heroes Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold drew heavily on republican themes.  It may surprise them that Burke, the conservative, offered a powerful rationale for sustainability.

I bring all this up to say that our various traditions of political thought are a lot richer than the typical left-right spectrum.  Casting everything in terms of liberal or conservative tends to dumb down our political discourse and, worse, polarize it to the point that every issue involves a zero-sum game in a Manichean struggle between good and evil.  Does your position on hydrofracking mean that you also need to have a certain position on U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan?  On my Facebook page, I engage in this very same silliness by identifying my politics as “left,” which reflects many of my positions on economic and social issues, but doesn’t capture my interventionist foreign policy or my more conservative temperament on topics like community and place, or on the issue of reproductive cloning, which may become quite significant in a few decades.  I’m also an environmentalist.  To many people that seems left-wing, but if Burke were alive today, he might tell us that “conservative” and “conservation” are more than etymological cousins.  Professor Robert Paquette recently gave me a list of conservative agrarian writers with environmentalist sympathies.  At the same time, some strands of the left are hostile to green values.  So, I better edit that Facebook page.

Writing in the New York Times recently, University of California philosopher John Perry offered a more complex political metric than the usual left and right.

See  Perry tries to categorize the current crop of Presidential candidates by expanding the standard spectrum with the addition of views on issues like the Bill of Rights and foreign intervention.  His discussion is useful, though it ignores some key issues like the environment or the importance of community and he doesn’t talk about traditions that defy standard categories.

Unfortunately, the Hamilton community has at times fallen into simplistic political polarities.  There have been vitriolic attacks by some alumni (see, who caricature the College as a bastion of leftist ideology; at the same time, conservative students have told me of being treated with hostility by some faculty members.  Controversies over Susan Rosenberg, Ward Churchill, and the Alexander Hamilton Institute haven’t helped.  To some people it probably seems inconceivable that one could support the work of both the Days Massolo Center and the AHI.  Yet I have also heard people from both institutions (both of which have profoundly enriched the lives of students on the Hill) show a keen interest in working with the other.  This fall, I had the pleasure of helping guide a discussion, sponsored by the Days Massolo Center and the Publius Society (which includes many students involved with AHI), involving students with highly diverse views on the Occupy movement.  At times it was a tense discussion and perhaps nobody’s mind was changed, but, thanks in part to both Days Massolo Director Amit Taneja and the students connected with both organizations, the dialogue was completely civil and revealed some more nuanced positions.  I pointed out that both the Occupy movement and the Tea Party draw on the republican tradition’s distrust of centralized power, whether economic or political.

Events like this might lead us to see political perspectives and ideologies in more complex and nuanced ways, get past the polarization, and also realize that we might have some profound points of agreement with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.