In absolute defiance of common sense, the contraception “debate” that I was hesitant to write about — twice — seems to continue, at least by proxy. On leap day, Rush Limbaugh weighed in on that woman who was denied to speak at the House panel ostensibly about birth control. As is usual, Rush Limbaugh had nothing valuable to add to the discussion, but his particular word choice led to controversy and an incredible flight of advertisers from his so-called Excellence In Broadcasting network. His joke of an apology was summarily dismissed and Jon Stewart brilliantly ridiculed the whole mess. It’s so bad that now other right-wing talk radio stars are being targeted for sponsorship withholding.
But while Rush’s particular comments appear to be a lightning rod for focused criticism, the spirit of his remarks forms the cornerstone of conservative opposition to publicly underwritten or otherwise widely accessible birth control. It cannot be that the right protests government spending per se, since it tends as a rule to support robust defense spending, foreign intervention, big oil subsides along with increased and oversight-free drilling, expensive tax cuts for the wealthy, and so on. The BBC has a lovely summary of the major arguments against contraception:
- Contraception is inherently wrong because it is unnatural, anti-life, and separates sex from reproduction.
- Contraception leads to negative consequences since it prevents potentially useful individuals from being born, can be used for social engineering or eugenics, and carries health risks.
- Contraception promotes “immoral behaviour” by encouraging marriage-free sex primarily for pleasure.
Let’s consider these points in turn.
Contraception may be unnatural, but then so are gasoline-powered internal combustion engines, alternating current, department stores, cluster bombs (quite “anti-life”, those), and the amplitude modulated radio waves that carry Rush Limbuagh’s demented ramblings to the uneducated masses. Separating sex from reproduction ought to be no more scandalous than separating Christ from Christmas (where are the December big-box boycotts from the right?), separating Big Macs from fatal heart failure (Dick Cheney has had multiple surgeries), or separating the incidence of pain from its experience (Rush himself was famously addicted to painkillers). To recapitulate a Godwin’s Law favourite, contraception might prevent the next Einstein, but then again it might prevent the next Hitler, so all other things being equal we can safely reject that argument. It is a stretch to assert the government is engaging in a shadow eugenics war by trying to increase contraceptive access to poor people. And any health risks of contraception are likely outweighed by health benefits, but regardless, that argument isn’t being deployed by conservatives to restrict access to cigarettes and automobiles.
So we’re left with the moral hazard, and this is the point emphasized by the conservative opposition. Rush didn’t put too fine a point on what he thinks users of contraceptives are and called for published videos of her alleged depraved behaviour even while vilifying those choices. Following that twisted, one-sided logic, a prominent Santorum backer declared last month that his idea of birth control was for the ladies to keep their knees together. Very clearly, these men believe that sex acts ought not to be engaged in merely for pleasure (at least, not by women). But what could be the harm from that? Do they suppose the television ought not to be watched merely for pleasure, or that food should never be consumed primarily for pleasure? Would they dare champion those beliefs on the national stage if they held them?
A related and lately controversial idea is the concept of marriage equality. The idea that gay marriage ought to be opposed has been defended on three major planks:
- Biblical and cultural tradition dictate that marriage must remain heterosexual
- Marriage’s primary function is the production and rearing of children
- Gay marriage is an unnatural perversion which will result in a slippery slope to all manner of other depravities, including legal polygamy and bestiality
But these ideas are as readily assailable as those which purport to oppose contraception access. The first amendment (the very same invoked to defend sundry religiously-based bigotries) seems to clearly prohibit the legislative embrace of religious doctrine. Tradition has hardly offered a reliable measure of the correctness or utility of policy: consider slavery, racism, and the recent tradition of numerous concrete wars against abstract ideas like communism and terrorism. If ‘natural’ marriage were so central to child rearing, then fertility drugs, divorce, and single parents would be the target of preventive legislation too. And the idea that gay marriage will lead to polygamy and bestiality is ridiculous. Anyone who has spent time with more than one friend at a time understands that the difference between “two” and “more than two” is not only academic; and asserting an equivalency between a relationship with a human and a relationship with another animal should be insulting in the extreme even to anyone that ever had a kind word to say about the Jersey Shore, for example.
To the extent any of these ideas make sense, they have been motivated by religious beliefs, as I opined in part last month. Seemingly, only religious fanatics seem to champion the opposition to contraceptive access and marriage equality, and mainly due to the perversion of culture and the damage to society that they believe these practices will result in. But what evidence do we have that access to birth control directly destroys society? Has any reputable study been conducted that links access to birth control in direct proportion to higher adoption, or abortion, or ‘promiscuity’, or any other alleged social ill? Gay marriage hasn’t been legal anywhere in the United States for longer than a decade, so the opposition to it cannot be anything more than purely speculative. And yet the right clamors righteously for reduced access for birth control and bans on homosexual marriages.
Compare these views to the public debate about climate change and global warming. There is good evidence to suggest that so-called ‘greenhouse gasses’ like carbon dioxide result in an increased retention of solar energy, leading to an increase in average global temperature. Lately, it has seemed that weather is becoming increasingly bizarre, with powerful hurricanes striking New England, out-of-season tornadoes leveling mid-Western towns, and unusual seasonal variation the world over. NASA declared the 2000s the hottest decade on record, and arctic and antarctic ice is vanishing like never before. Here are real, documented problems, with plausible scientific links to the recent and unprecedented rise in the combustion of carboniferous material for energy.
But the same conservatives warning about the dangers of contraceptive proliferation — the worst effects of which would result in a decrease in population overall and an increase in the odd accidental pregnancy (a problem sure to remain without contraceptives) — and the dangers of gay marriage — purely speculative and motivating an arbitrary denial of the rights guaranteed under the equal protection clause — are leading the climate change denial charge. Their tactics are no less than diabolical: discredit the scientists and ridicule them by invoking the bogus idea of the sheer impossibility of human impact on the environment: tell that to to present inhabitants of the “Fertile Crescent,” or the ancient victims of Columbus’s genocide, or late-60s residents of Cleveland, or the multitudinous victims of the 2008 financial crash without homes or investment accounts.
So we have a class of people who believe that contraception will encourage promiscuity and will lead indirectly to the destruction of our society and values. We have another class of people (possibly the same class) who believe that gay marriage will lead indirectly to the destruction of our society and values. They loudly support legislation to reduce contraceptive access and ban gay marriage in order to forestall an unlikely but disastrous apocalypse. Their beliefs are rooted primarily in religious ideas, citing the first amendment as their main defense.
Then we have a class of people who believe that hydrocarbon combustion will result in massive and lethal climate change and will lead directly to the destruction of our society and values. They loudly support legislation to decrease hydrocarbon access in order to forestall a completely plausible but disastrous apocalypse. Their beliefs are rooted primarily in scientific ideas, citing a body of peer-reviewed research as their main defense. And yet it is completely fashionable to ridicule the scientists and not the theocrats!
Both groups hold scary and controversial views. Can you imagine the fallout if both were forced to be exposed to only rational, respectful criticism with regard to public policy? Thanks a lot, the first amendment.