why the birth control discussion is making me so sad

I didn’t become a religious person until I was twenty years old. But for as long as I can remember, I was fascinated with people who were so sure of their faith, and enraptured by families who organized their lives around religious ritual. I adored my Catholic neighbors who ate fish on Fridays, sent their children to Catholic school, and went to mass every Saturday night and/or Sunday morning without fail. They even sought out churches on vacation. My Mormon classmate, who was the oldest of six (at least six; they moved after sixth grade and we lost touch), had such an orderly home, organized around their church and learning and family. Their family was enormous. My parents were open minded; they always emphasized that it was my choice if I wanted to go to church with any of them. Thus when I did finally become religious, it’s not surprising that I flirted with Orthodox Judaism. I spent well over a year seriously entrenched within a Haredi group in Israel when I was in my early twenties. Yet, I eventually found it suffocating. I eventually felt like it wasn’t compatible with my intellectual, moral and ethical convictions, but I haven’t stopped believing in the wisdom and historical genius of the Tanakh (aka Hebrew Bible). Being Jewish is still very much the thing I am first.

Thus, I want to listen seriously to the concerns of Catholic believers with the health mandate. I have read, and read, and thought and thought, and talked and talked. If their opposition is a true matter of conscience, I concede it’s a problem. Many of the opposing arguments don’t make sense. “Why cover Viagra?” I’ve heard over and over. If I’m going to take seriously that the problem for the Catholic is not sex itself but actually contraception–then of course covering Viagra makes sense. It can promote a healthy sex life that results in reproduction. I don’t care that ads for erectile dysfunction don’t mention reproduction; that’s not relevant to the logic of the bishops’ decision. It does matter that the “birth control” pill covers processes involving the reproductive system other than fertilization. I agree in principle that it seems invasive for an employer to possibly know why you’re taking a medication–why should anyone have to explain to their boss that they have PCOS rather than an aversion to pregnancy? The answer for me, though, is not forcing a private health care provider to cover anything or to otherwise punish Catholic institutions. Rather, it’s to get rid of the private healthcare providers. Let’s not force Catholic organizations to have to think about this problem at all.

Obviously, I am very left politically. I am thus for ethical, moral, rational, and religious reasons. I honestly believe the moral solution is a single-payer or socialized system of medicine. I believe we have reached a moment historically where medicine and medical care have become rights. They’re rights because we have the technological ability and knowledge to make them accessible to everyone in our society.

I’ll gladly pay more taxes for more equal and complete access to healthcare. We already spent nearly $10,000 last year for my family to have medical insurance and basic care. (I just added that up for taxes….). We were all quite healthy in 2011–yes, I have whatever is happening with my platelets, and I’m having a high-risk pregnancy–but most of that expense has been in 2012. I can’t imagine it will get more expensive, and I’d not even resent that $10,000 if it went to providing care for a larger pool of people.

The Viagra argument coming from people I usually agree with, I’m not moved by. From the opposition, I’m actually appalled by statements like, “I’m not saying you can’t have birth control. I’m saying I shouldn’t have to pay for it.” If I’m being generous, I’ll accept that this statement is just about believing sex should be for the sake of reproduction and not about misogyny and chauvinism. From those with whom I want to converse, it might very well be. It’s pretty dangerous, however, for a religious person to join forces with many of the people who make that argument, and I would ask them to question why those people are jumping to their defense. Just like I cringe and would speak out against anyone who might equate Catholoc beliefs with…well…events I’d rather not mention.

And herein is where I get sad. Two men have gotten quite a lot of attention for their extremely offensive comments: Foster Friess (paraphrase: “In my day, girls used aspirin for birth control. They just put it between their knees. Ha ha guffaw. Aren’t I clever?”) and Rush Limbaugh (paraphrase: “College girls are sluts, but that’s okay if they let me watch.”). Is it really a morally acceptable, encouraging, and welcoming example of faith to do anything but openly revile that kind of rhetoric? I know the First Amendment also promotes free speech–but it protects us from government infringement on our speech, not from any kind of criticism or condemnation of what we say. The law is quite clear that we can’t say anything we want to in public. The traditions of civil discourse make me extremely uncomfortable with anyone in the public sphere who pretends that kind of language doesn’t matter, and isn’t relevant to the conversation.

Let me be honest too. I’m not compelled by Fluke’s testimony–I can say more about that if anyone cares. More interestingly to me in terms of how her story has been handled, even the progressive media are talking to her and about her as if she’s an innocent young woman, just a step away from her childhood bedroom and her parents’ protection. Sandra Fluke’s a thirty-year old law student, not a “college co-ed.” [I hate the word co-ed, by the way. Women make up 57% of the nation’s college students.] Why can’t we talk about this as if women are rational and full adults? Related to that will I be taken more seriously if I admit I don’t actually use hormonal birth control methods or any other kind that insurance pays for, and haven’t for most of the time I’ve been sexually active?

Let me make a modest proposal. The private health insurance pool I pay into subsidizes a whole host of behaviors with which I disagree–not to mention the mistakes of so many people. I live in a state with a major obesity problem, and with very high rates of heart disease and diabetes as a result. Gluttony is a sin. Why does my insurance cover testing and treatment for Type II diabetes? What you want me to accept that being “fat” isn’t just about overeating and lack of self control? I’ve been to Walmart. I’ve seen the carts of soda and chips and Hostess products. I’d like a health plan where I don’t have to share costs with obese people.

I sat in the waiting room of my hematologist’s office the other day next to a man who reeked of cigarette smoke (sometime I should post about my extreme physical reaction to that…). My hematologist is also an oncologist. His office is in the “Family Cancer Center.” What insurance is that man on? I hope not mine. If he doesn’t have an affidavit proving to ME that his medical problems aren’t related to his smoking, well, I want back my portion of the insurance pool that is going to his care.

Speaking of my insurance plan, I recently read that it covers in-patient drug and alcohol treatment! That clearly encourages immoral behavior. If you can get your care paid for, why not spend a few years snorting cocaine and binge drinking? I don’t want to pay for that. Suffer your own consequences. I only want to be part of an insurance pool with people who fit exactly my moral and ethical worldview.

You know, given some research someone I knew did in grad school about the health costs of people with PhDs, and the more leftist leanings of those with humanities and social science degrees, I think that pool might be a hell of a lot cheaper than the one to which I currently contribute, which pulls in a much larger portion of the overweight and unhealthy population of Mississippi. I say, dump them. Let them learn some consequences. Maybe it’ll bring and end to their lazy and sinning ways.

But, then, I am reminded of something a rabbi in Israel taught me, about the story of Sodom and Gommorah. I think this teaching is in the Mishnah. I know what the story is famous for, but that message isn’t the primary Jewish one. According to the teaching I find most convincing–and this is based both upon my rabbi’s teaching and my knowledge of biblical Hebrew–God didn’t destroy the cities because of sexual sin. He destroyed them because their residents did not practice hospitality. The residents were unwelcoming to the angels who visited Lot because they were strangers–and they were going to rape them. We know Abraham’s greatest virtue was his hospitality, and by association, his compassion for the outsider, for the person he didn’t know. Lot’s fellow townsmen wanted to assault the visitors because they were unknown, different, and unfamiliar. They didn’t know them, so they were willing to condemn them.

Biblical wisdom, however, tells us that the primary rule of human relationships is based upon a simple rule–“One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.” I fail at that, a lot. I don’t know what’s in anyone’s heart. It would be beautiful if we could all welcome and care for a dozen children. I don’t need to know why each individual woman who wants access to the birth control pill needs it. I do know that it is wrong for me to assume that the “problem” which women and men address by using birth control, is immorality and lack of self control, rather than health, life conditions, age, or differing preparation for parenthood. I’m perfectly well aware of what the Torah says about being fruitful and multiplying. I also know that was written in a different historical context, and that Jewish law argues that sometimes protecting the sanctity of life demands we prevent new life from coming into the world.

Yet I have to accept that many Catholic people might feel differently. It’s not part of my faith to try to force the world to adhere to my morality. Yet because I, too, practice a religion that the outside world doesn’t follow, and oftentimes is in conflict with, I can relate to their concerns. We don’t, however, live in a religious state. We live in a society with separation between them. Either we all pay for our own care completely individually, we join completely voluntary pools without any government regulation, or we make it a public institution and accept that being part of a society means we don’t get to individually mandate every cent the government spends. I just don’t see any other viable compassionate, hospitable response that can help me love my neighbor.

I know someone who believes differently can poke holes in my logic. But I’m not just using reason here. It’s not a problem with that kind of solution, unless we actually do want to trounce upon the convictions of others–unless we actually do want to crush and destroy those with whom we don’t share a faith.

7 responses to “why the birth control discussion is making me so sad

  1. You are one smart, articulate, compassionate person. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am hoping your pregnancy proceeds smoothly and both you and the baby are healthy.

  2. This is such a good post. You really helped me reclarify for myself what’s going on here and why it’s problematic. The Viagra logic is nice for punditry, but you’re right it’s a bit beside the point. Making things about gender matters, but don’t make things about gender at the expense of what’s really at stake, the logic and structure of our healthcare system and the conceptions of community and shared responsibility that are too frequently selectively or arbitrarily deployed.

    • I should say, rather, don’t make things about gender at the expense of what ELSE is also quite importantly at stake, because I’m not implying it’s an either or, that the misogyny is a red herring. Obviously, it’s not.

  3. The Viagra argument is not about complete equivalency. It is, rather, about the supposition that while some men are prescribed it to enable sex that may lead to procreation, others seek it purely for enjoyment. And some from the latter group are single men employed by Catholic-affiliated institutions. And others are married, but are using the medication to have affairs. I don’t care which one of them is which, just like it is nobody’s beeswax whether women are prescribed the pill for PCOS, mitigation of painful periods or purely for pregnancy prevention.

    What is even more on point is that in a number of states the laws have mandated institutions to provide coverage for birth control with either the churches only exception or without any exceptions at all. And Catholic institutions large and small complied without raising a stink. The Bishops seem to have only decided that it’s a big deal when it looked like an opportunity to make a political play against this particular President.

    As you know, I share both religious and moral arguments you raise. I too am for the single-payer system, and was really disappointed with the President for letting people who I believe were acting in bad faith hijack the process of health reform to the great detriment of most citizens of the country. But I also believe that it is not the role of a Catholic-affiliated (or any other religion-affiliated) institution to interfere with religious or moral practice of its employees who do not share the same faith. They don’t get to deprive women and families of medically sound choices because these options are against their religion.

    Because you know what? These other options may be dictated as the correct course of action by another religion or moral code. And really, if a teaching is an organic part of a given religion’s belief system, then most followers of that religion will chose to follow the teaching. In this specific case, statistics tell us that 95% or more of Catholic women use birth control during their reproductive years. Kinda doesn’t sound like the Church has done a good job of educating its flock on the central importance of the tenet, no? So if all it has in its arsenal to ensure its flock’s compliance with the tenet is abridging rights and religious freedom of others, sorry, but I do not feel sympathy.

    • Julia, of course I personally agree with you. But I don’t get to dictate the Catholic Church’s approach and political attitudes and I do recognize that for a few devout Catholics I know, this is truly distressing. So, my answer is simply: fine, let’s remove this problem entirely.

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