In an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” a creepy man comes to the door of a poor family’s house holding a box. He offers them the following proposition: If they will push a button on the box, two things will happen. They will receive a large sum of money. And someone far away, whom they do not know, will be killed.
The family struggles over the moral implications of the choice. They need the money but are concerned about the killing. They know if they press the button, they will be causing someone to die. But they are not actually killing anyone directly — they are not plunging a knife or firing a gun — so perhaps they are not really doing anything wrong in pushing the button.
Does it make a moral difference that someone else would carry out the consequence they would cause by pushing the button? The family thought so and decided to press.
President Barack Obama’s proposed “compromise” announced last week leaves religious employers holding a similar box on the issue of drugs the Food and Drug Administration calls contraceptives, including some that cause abortions.
The president says his proposal should make them feel better because they will not actually be directly purchasing these services. Instead, the president promised that if these religious objectors offer insurance, he’ll simply force someone else (their insurers) to hand out the drugs for free instead.
Even if it is technically true that the religious objectors are not providing the services (and there are good reasons to believe it is false), there is no dispute that the mere offering of the policy is what triggers the employee’s right to obtain the drugs from the insurer. In other words, the act of offering an insurance policy is now like pressing the button in the “Twilight Zone” episode. The instant it is done, it triggers an unavoidable consequence, namely an automatic right to receive the drugs and services at issue.
For some religious objectors, the fact that it will technically be the insurance company providing the drugs may be enough to ease the conscience. They may believe that because they are just pushing the button to trigger someone else’s legal obligation to give the drugs out, they are not really involved. The First Amendment surely protects their right to make that moral judgment on their own.
Other religious objectors, however, take a different view. They look at the alleged compromise and believe nothing has changed. The instant they offer health insurance, they will be triggering an automatic right to these services. The drugs will flow from the insurer they selected to the employee they hired, and they will flow solely because of the religious objector’s decision to offer health insurance. For these people, the fact that they will be pushing a button that legally requires someone else to distribute the services is a distinction without a moral difference.
Who has the better moral argument? Our Constitution doesn’t care.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.