Bill Meacham: Birth Control and the “Goodness” Paradigm

A current New York Times article describes controversy over birth control pills at Roman Catholic colleges.#[1] The difference between two ways of thinking about ethics, the Goodness paradigm and the Rightness paradigm, could not be illustrated more starkly.

The U.S. Health Care Reform legislation mandates that employer-funded insurance plans cover birth control for employees, including students at Catholic colleges, according to a recent ruling from the Obama administration. Catholic institutions are howling in protest, claiming that to do so would force them to violate their religious beliefs.

The ruling is based on recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, an independent group of doctors and researchers that concluded that birth control is not just a convenience but is medically necessary to ensure women’s health and well-being.

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Providing birth control would likely lower both pregnancy and abortion rates. And women with unintended pregnancies are more likely to be depressed and to smoke, drink, and delay or skip prenatal care, potentially harming fetuses and putting babies at increased risk of being born prematurely and having low birth weight.#[2]

In other words, providing birth control provides unmistakable benefits to women and avoids harm to infants. This way of thinking is the hallmark of the Goodness paradigm, evaluating choices on the basis of the benefits and harms expected from the various alternatives.

If you allow birth control, you increase the chances for women’s health and reduce the chances for the depressing consequences of unintended pregnancy. If you forbid it, you do the opposite. In the former case, more good ensues; in the latter, more harm.

Opposed to this is the Rightness paradigm, evaluating choices on the basis of moral rules regardless of consequences. The Catholic Church considers it morally wrong to prevent conception by any artificial means, including condoms, IUDs, birth control pills, and sterilization. So Catholic college administrators don’t want to prescribe birth control pills even though according to Catholic doctrine itself abortion is a graver sin than contraception, and banning contraceptives would most likely increase abortions.

So how should we adjudicate this? I am thoroughly in the Goodness camp here. There is no systematic way to find out what the moral rules are. In the case of the Catholic church, all it can do is appeal to authority. But there is a systematic way to find out what the benefits and harms are: observe reality carefully. So I find the Goodness paradigm far preferable. for this and several other reasons outlined in my paper on the subject, “The Good and the Right.”#[3]

The Catholic Church is being obstructionist. The law already exempts churches and other religious institutions from having to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees.#[4] The issue here is Catholic schools. You can make the case that if someone joins the church they are agreeing that the church’s moral rules apply to them. But you can’t make the same case for someone who merely attends a church college.

A lot of philosophical controversy is rightly regarded as abstruse, theoretical, and of little practical import. But not this one. Where you come down on the Goodness vs. Rightness question has profound consequences not only for your own actions but for societal policies that impact millions of people.


Grady, Denise, “Ruling on Contraception Draws Battle Lines at Catholic Colleges.” New York Times, 29 January 2012. On-line publication, URL =

“Excerpts From a Report on Women’s Health.” New York Times, 29 January 2012. On-line publication, URL =

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” On-line publication, URL =

“A New Battle Over Contraception.” New York Times, 5 November 2011. On-line publication, URL = as of 29 January 2012.