by Christopher Dodson,
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
April 2003

Misconceptions shape much of public policy. Legislators and other elected officials are often torn between the truth and facts, on the one hand, and the inaccurate, but popularly believed, conception on the other.

Perhaps the best example of legislation driven by misconceptions during this last North Dakota legislative session was the bill to repeal the state’s “anti-cohabitation” law. Consider these statements about the law and the bill made during this last legislative session:

•The existing law punishes persons of the opposite sex for living together.

•The law gives the state a bad image, adding to the state’s out-migration.

•Failure to repeal the law would bring “sex police” into our homes.

•The state supreme court held that the law did not prohibit marriage fraud.

All of the statements are false. In fact, the existing law does not even mention “cohabitation.” The law’s literal language prohibits only “openly and notoriously” misrepresenting yourself as married if you are not. Few persons knew about the law until the bill was introduced, so it could not have given the state a bad image. Several other states, including fast growing states like Florida, have a similar law and it has not hurt them. The law had not been enforced since the 1930’s, so it is difficult to see how
not repealing it would lead to the creation of “sex police.” The state supreme court did not hold that the law did not prohibit marriage fraud. Actually, the court’s opinion contains many references indicating that the statute’s main purpose is to prevent marriage misrepresentation.

Here are some other misconceptions that show up public policy discussions:

•Everyone has a right to adopt a child.
No, a child may have a right to be adopted, but the ability to adopt is a privilege.

•Ending abortion means criminalizing women that have them.
Persons on both sides of the abortion issue hold on to this one. Abortion can be ended without criminalizing the woman.

•Welfare (TANF) is for poor adults.
What we usually call “welfare” is only for parents and is directed at helping the child.

•Economic progress is inevitable.
This often shows up in debates about farm policy. The economy is a human institution. It is what we make it.

•Efficiency is always better.
As Pope John Paul II has noted, excessive concern for efficiency is one of the root causes of the culture of death.

•Catholic hospitals do not provide compassionate care, including contraception to rape victims.
The truth is that Catholic hospitals are required by the Church to provide victims of sexual assault an opportunity prevent conception resulting from the rape. A Catholic hospital will not, however, knowingly provide an abortifacient.

•The only way to ensure quality education in nonpublic schools is to subject them to the same criteria applied to public schools.
This is the practice in North Dakota, but nowhere else in the nation. Are the other states not ensuring quality education in nonpublic schools?

•A human rights commission will enforce “sexual orientation” rights.
Every bill introduced to create a human rights commission applied only to existing recognized rights. “Sexual orientation” is not one of them.

•The purpose of welfare reform is create fairness. If employers don’t give a break to new mothers, victims of sexual assault, and others with difficulties, why should the state? The purpose of welfare reform is to help children by strengthening families. The injustices of the working world should not be adopted by the state.

•All Republicans are pro-life; all Democrats favor abortion rights.
This one goes against the facts in North Dakota, but seems to be conveniently forgotten in an election year.

I suppose I could make the list much longer. It should not come as a surprise that in a democracy, misconceptions about law, fact, or the truth are numerous. People hold different opinions and often hold on to what they want to believe even when the facts are contrary. The truth is bound to be lost sometime. There are, however, two reassuring factors. First, while the truth may get lost in a democracy, it is better to risk losing it than to live under a government system that never gives us the chance to find it. Second, as Catholics we can take solace knowing that there are certain truths and that they are discoverable, unchangeable, and safeguarded by the Church.