A Philosopher's Blog

The Contraception Issue

Posted in Ethics, Law, Medicine/Health, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 7, 2012
Rush Limbaugh booking photo from his arrest in...

Possibly a Viagra slut?

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.

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21 Responses

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  1. wtp said, on March 7, 2012 at 10:09 pm

    “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.

    Shoot…They were sooooo close to having a point, but they blew it by not quite having adequate moral grounds. Ah, but if man’s reach doth not exceed his grasp, then what’s a heaven for, eh?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      They do have a point and a reasonable one. However, I have argued that their view is in error. You are free to show that the Catholic Church is right about contraception. That is, its use is immoral and contrary to the will of God. If that can be proven, I will abandon my incorrect view that contraception is morally acceptable and not against God’s will.

  2. T. J. Babson said, on March 7, 2012 at 10:13 pm

    Red wine is good for the heart. I think the government should force other people to buy my red wine. And not the cheap boxed stuff, either.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      The government is not forcing people to buy contraceptives. Rather, health insurance has been mandated to cover birth control (as it has covered Viagra, insulin and so on). Now, it might be argued that insurance companies should not be mandated to provide certain coverage (that is, they should be free to do as they will). But this is distinct from the specific issue of contraception. If the state has no business mandating the coverage of anything (Viagra, insulin, blood pressure meds, etc.) then it should not mandate the coverage of contraception.

      But, if mandating the coverage of other stuff is okay, then giving comparable coverage to women would seem to be fair.

      • T. J. Babson said, on March 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm

        Mike, are you really arguing that Viagra is comparable to contraceptives? Viagra is used to treat an underlying health issue. Contraceptives are closer to Botox.

        • dhammett said, on March 9, 2012 at 12:13 am

          “The FDA recently approved the use of Botox to, ‘treat urinary incontinence in people with neurologic conditions such as spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis who have over activity of the bladder’

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm

          I am arguing just that.
          First, contraceptives are used to treat underlying health issues (severe acne, menstrual problems, ovarian cysts, etc.).
          Second, the primary function of Viagra seems to be to allow old men to have a certain type of sex (namely those requiring an erection). I have no problem with that (I’ll be an old man someday). Contraception allows women to have a certain type of sex (namely the type that does not get them pregnant). Also, since most guys who use Viagra probably use it to have non-reproductive sex it can thus be seen as a lifestyle choice rather than a medical necessity. If sex is medically required, then this would seem to also warrant contraception-after all, if people need sex it would seem legitimate to allow women to have the sex they need without their getting pregnant (especially in cases in which a pregnancy would be harmful to the woman).
          Third, requiring that something must treat an underlying condition in order to qualify for coverage not only begs the question when it comes to justification but is also not the case. For example, my insurance covers a wellness check. This does not treat any underlying condition, yet is covered. In fact, the hope is that it will never reveal a condition.

          • T. J. Babson said, on March 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm

            So I take it that you are in favor of the government mandating that insurance companies provide Viagra to men? What about minoxidil? Should that be mandated as well? What about in vitro fertilization? More mandates?

  3. dhammett said, on March 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Rush just lost sight of (or was never actually able to see) the rather wide gap that exists between condemning all extreme feminists as “feminazis” and labeling Ms. Fluke as a slut . Forgive him. Again.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm

      There does seem to be a moral distinction (if slight) between generically bashing a group (like feminists) and specifically accusing an individual of committing illegal and perhaps immoral acts.

  4. magus71 said, on March 8, 2012 at 9:40 am

    What? no articles about all the left-wingers who’ve made similar comments? Shocking.


  5. Melissa said, on March 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    The questions that this whole debacle brought to my mind were these: 1. Is birth control a right? 2. Can the government require an employer to offer health insurance? I wonder a lot about the first one. Just because you have to pay for something does not mean it is denied to you (although the costs may be prohibitive.) I had assumed that birth control is available through various venues through Title X–so if someone’s insurance plan didn’t over copays for birth control, it could be obtained elsewhere for a reasonable cost. Even if the Catholic Church’s argument against birth control is false, wouldn’t ministerial exception allow them to be exempt from policies they find antithetical to their teachings?

    The one thing that bugs me a bit is when the knee jerk reaction about this issue is “women’s rights” when I think it’s more complex than that. I think the deeper issue resides in whether or not the government can require health insurance–I’m curious to hear what the Supreme Court will decide. Rush’s personal attacks against Sandra Fluke are the basest form of argument for sure, and only adds to the vitriol and takes away from a serious discussion of the issues.

    • anon said, on March 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm

      “Just because you have to pay for something does not mean it is denied to you (although the costs may be prohibitive.)”
      True, but if something is cost prohibitive then it is de facto denied to you.

      “ministerial exception allow them to be exempt from policies they find antithetical to their teachings”
      In this debate about coverage, churches and other religious institutions are already free to not provide birth control. The issue here is that the Church wants things like Catholic hospitals exempted as well.

      “I think the deeper issue resides in whether or not the government can require health insurance”
      I don’t believe the issues is that deep that in this case. It’s, can the government force somebody to do something against their “beliefs”. The goverenment already does so in certain cases and doesn’t in others. Which side of the line will this fall on? Even if the government didn’t/couldn’t require health insurance, can they require that certain things be covered or not? Can the governement force insurance companies to cover blood transfusions even if your beliefs are against such things?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 9, 2012 at 11:48 am

        The state does seem to have the right to regulate activities-after all, that is what the law is all about. As far as what insurance must cover, one on hand I don’t like the idea of the state imposing (liberty and all that). On the other hand, the state does seem to have a legitimate right to see to it that the insurance companies are providing adequate services. After all, the state can compel McDonalds to sell beef hamburgers rather than rat burgers.

    • dhammett said, on March 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      Were the SC decisions in Roe ,Citizens United, Dred Scott, Bush v Gore. Brown v Board of Education correct? There are those on either side of any issue brought before the court who will argue against any SC decision.
      Future court decisions are rooted in the original decision. Precedent becomes, for all intents and purposes, the closest thing we can get to a final determination. And, even then, a die-hard core will reject the court’s
      findings. I’m reasonably certain some people still think the court decided incorrectly in Brown . And if they were still alive, some shriveled pre-Civil War citizens would still be supporting the Dred Scott decision.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 9, 2012 at 11:46 am


      From a utilitarian perspective, birth control does seem to be right (or at least acceptable). At the very least, it does reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies (which reduces the number of abortions) and this seems enough to morally justify its use. Add in the fact that it is often used to treat various medical conditions (such as ovarian cysts) and the fact that it allows women more control over when and if they get pregnant, I think we have a moral winner. The main moral opposition to it seems to hinge on two main points: 1) it encourages people to be sexually immoral and 2) religious views.

      In regards to #1, I’d venture that people would have “immoral” sex even without birth control (after all, look at history). There is also the obvious question as to whether or not the allegedly immoral acts (like sex outside of marriage or sex for non-procreation) are immoral. In regards to #2, I’m inclined to require some proof that God is in fact morally opposed to birth control.

      As you say, the fact that someone has to pay for something does not mean it is being denied. After all, I have to buy my own food, gas, and so on-but I am not thus denied these things. However, when people get insurance they are either paying for the services or getting it as a job benefit and hence they are paying for what they get. But, there is a legitimate concern about what insurance companies should be forced to cover.

  6. Patrick Sperry said, on March 9, 2012 at 12:37 am

    Aside from being embarrassed by Rush’s comments as a conservative. He was clearly out of bounds IMO. I was less than surprised at all the misandry that was contained in various newspapers, blogs, and so on. It really gave the appearance of true red herring argumentation when in fact there was a very good argument against him.

    But yet again we see that sexism is wrong as long as it is applied toward women but when applied toward men it’s a free fire zone.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm

      Sexism against men is also wrong. But, you are right, there is far less response when men are bashed for being men.

  7. T. J. Babson said, on March 11, 2012 at 10:33 am

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but has not the government mandated that contraception be covered at 100%–that is, without co-pays?

    How do you justify taking money from a diabetic, who has to pay for insulin that is not covered at 100%, and giving it to someone like Sandra Fluke? Exactly what is the justification for this?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on March 12, 2012 at 3:32 pm

      I don’t see how money is being taken from a diabetic to pay for contraception, anymore than the fact that my 1/year checkup being covered 100% takes away from the diabetic.

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