The Contraception Issue
When the Catholic Church and conservatives decided to make an issue of the coverage of contraceptives in health care plans, it appeared that the Democrats were going to take a beating. After all, the narrative had been presented as one of religious freedom: the tyrannical hand of government had reached out to force Catholic institutions to violate their moral stance on contraception. This fired up the conservative base and even gave a few religious liberals pause. With the re-surging economy, it appeared that God had smiled down upon the Republicans and granted them a stick with which to beat Obama.
And then Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute (and, creepily requested that she post sex videos on Youtube) because she defended the coverage of contraception by health insurance plans, which shifted the narrative. Instead of a morality play in which the cruel liberal state was imposing on the faithful, the morality play shifted to one in which a young woman was being branded a slut and a prostitute for speaking out for the rights of women. This, as might be imagined, shifted the narrative in favor of the Democrats and Obama.
Not surprisingly, some folks decided to “play politics” with this and also attempted to use the situation to raise funds for Obama and the Democrats. This was met with righteous indignation from the right-who were no doubt angry that they had seemingly lost their political and fundraising advantage by this narrative shift. Of course, both parties are right: they each happily play politics and exploit events for fundraising. In this regards, they both seem to be in the wrong.
While I am usually branded a liberal (but never a slut), I do agree that there is a legitimate moral issue in regards to the state requiring employers with a religious affiliation to provide health care that conflicts with the professed morality of said institutions. After all, the liberty of conscience is a basic liberty (as per Mill’s arguments) and alleged impositions on this liberty should be taken seriously. However, I do believe that the Church’s officials are in error in regards to birth control and have argued for this elsewhere. As such, I believe that their appeal to conscience is unjustified and that they do not have adequate moral grounds to deny their employees such coverage. I do, however, respect the fact that they are taking a moral stand and that the Church does provide arguments in support of the official line. Of course, this is a rather a moot point now-the insurance companies will pick up the tab so the Catholic Church’s money can remain untainted by sin (well, aside from the money they pay their employees who might use it to buy birth control).
As will shock no one, I believe that Rush acted wrongly (both in terms of ethics and in terms of reasoning) in accusing Sandra Fluke of being a slut and a prostitute. As Rush saw it, Fluke wanted to be paid to have sex. However, Fluke never made that claim. Rather, she contended that insurance should cover the cost of contraception. This is no more paying women to have sex than the coverage of Viagra is paying men to have sex. Rather, medicine is being covered by health insurance-which is, as far as I know, what it is supposed to do. As such, even if the state is paying for contraception (or Viagra) it is not paying people to have sex. Thus, Rush’s reasoning is (shockingly enough) flawed.
In terms of the moral aspect of the matter, accusing a woman of being a slut and a prostitute are two rather serious and insulting accusations. As such, to make such accusations without warrant is certainly unethical. There is also the fact that such accusations are usually used to dismiss or attack women who dare to stand up for themselves and speak out for their rights. In the case of Fluke, this seems to be exactly what occurred. This bashing of women in an attempt to silence or dismiss them is clearly unacceptable in a democracy. There is also the matter of liberty of conscience and expression: just as the Catholic Church has the right to present its moral view without being attacked with hateful slurs and unwarranted accusations so does Sandra Fluke. Liberty is supposed to apply to all of us, not just men.
While I do expect such behavior from Rush, I did expect more from the Republican candidates. The gist of their replies seemed to be that their disagreement was with Rush’s choice of words. That is, they disagreed with his semantic choices. Given that these candidates speak relentlessly about moral values, their replies are tepid at best. I do understand why they are failing to show moral backbone: while many of Rush’s advertisers are dropping him, he is still a force to be reckoned with in regards to the conservative base (and the base conservatives). There is also the possibility that the candidates actually accept the misogyny behind Rush’s savage attack. Santorum, for example, has said some rather questionable things about women.
While the Republicans are no doubt trying to appeal to a certain part of the base, they are playing a rather risky game. While there are many conservative women, most American women hold to what can be seen as classically liberal views on many issues that are regarded as women’s issues (such as access to contraception, having equal opportunity, having equal rights, not being sexually harassed at work, and so on). As such, the Republicans should rethink what seems to be a strategy aimed at rolling back the rights of American women. While that might play well in some quarters, it will most assuredly not play well in the general election.
In contrast to the Republican candidates Obama took a proper moral stance in condemning these remarks. While it is easy to dismiss this as mere political game playing, this action was certainly consistent with both Obama’s professed values and the fact that he is the father of two girls. In short, he did the right thing. I would like to see the Republican candidates do this as well-if only to show that they have the political sense to realize that they are not getting points with most women voters.