The Difference Between Viagra and The Pill
Starting in August, women will no longer have to pay more than men for the prescriptions (the Pill, Viagra, Cialis) that enable them to have active sex lives. That was the big news this past Friday, when Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declared that almost* all employers must now pay for contraception in their health plans under the Affordable Health Care Act's requirement that insurers cover all preventive services. No co-pays. No deductibles.
Whether or not women should pay for having sex—whether financially or through pregnancy—has been, shall we say, a hot topic for centuries. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. birth rate dropped dramatically because of new technologies (rubber condoms, that invention of Goodyear). Teddy Roosevelt decried contraception as "race suicide." Margaret Sanger went to jail for keeping women from withering and dying from gestating and delivering one after another bundle of joy. Late-19th- and early-20th-century pundits said that the nation would become a bordello if anyone could have sex without consequences and warned of the death of the American family. Not until 1965, in the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut, did the United States Supreme Court declare that states had no right to ban the purchase of contraception, saying it violated citizens' right to marital privacy, which was "intimate to the degree of being sacred." (Declaring sex to be sacred? Moral crusader Anthony Comstock rolled over in his grave.) Seven years later, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts's ban on distributing birth control to single women. Roe v. Wade gets all the love/hate, but Griswold and Baird changed more women's lives.
But the idea that having sex without pregnancy leads to promiscuity and general immorality still hovered over contraception—and so until now, straight ladies have had to fund that part of their health care by themselves. When Viagra and Cialis came along and were immediately covered by health plans, feminists made for a lot of bitter jokes: men's sexual pleasure and reproductive rights were covered by health insurance, while women still had to pay out of pocket. That despite the fact that covering contraceptive services is one of the best ways to prevent abortion and keep women healthy. Or as Secretary Sebelius put it:
"Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women,” Ms. Sebelius said, and “it is documented to significantly reduce health costs."
Here's the thing: Christianity long linked sex with sin unless it was conducted only for the purpose of making babies. Today we link that view primarily with the Catholic Church, but Protestants have an honorable history of anti-contraceptive crusaders as well. Last week Mark Oppenheimer reported in The New York Times that certain evangelical Protestant strains are reviving that point of view, in an article that included this:
From the beginning of Christian history until the 19th century, the teaching held that contraception was sinful, says Allan Carlson, the author of “Godly Seed: American Evangelicals Confront Birth Control, 1873-1973.” “‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth’ — until the 1920s, all Protestants formally read that as being a ban on contraception,” Dr. Carlson says, “and all Protestants held to the Christian convention that birth control was sinful, for the same reason and in the same way abortion was.”
In insisting that contraception must be covered as part of ordinary health care, the Obama administration is defying that point of view, which has been revived lately (cf Quiverfull movement, Duggars, et al.).
Some feminists are angry that there remains an exemption for churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship that employ people of the same faith: Why shouldn't those women have the same rights as all other American women? Meanwhile, religious groups opposed to contraception (e.g., the Catholic bishops) are furious that they were given an additional year to comply but were not granted a "religious liberty" exemption for hospitals and other nonprofits run under their supervision, or as one Catholic news website put it:
Brushing aside concerns about religious liberty and respect for individual consciences, the Obama administration has announced that Church-related institutions will be required to provide contraceptive coverage for employees in their health-care plans....Calling the administration's decision "literally unconscionable," Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, the president of the US bishops' conference, said .... "In effect, the president is saying we have a year to figure out how to violate our consciences."
In other words, women can work for Catholic hospitals, colleges, social-services groups, and so on—and still have the same rights to sexual health coverage as men, under the same plans. All that Viagra needn't lead to either 19 children and counting; to abortions; or to impoverished women. Many feminists had feared that the Obama administration would cave on this hard-won policy shift. In holding the line, the Obama administration may—may—just have won back some of the feminists who were furious when President Barack Obama overruled the Food and Drug Administration and refused to put the emergency contraception Plan B on drugstore shelves.
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