Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Clearing Away the Straw Men in the 'Birth Control' Controversy

Time to dispel some myths about the current "birth control" controversy, because I can't recall seeing so much straw man since Dorothy met up with Ray Bolger along the Yellow Brick Road.

In 1973, college drop-out "Jeff Christie" replaced Jim Quinn (now a nationally syndicated conservative talk host heard on XM radio) as the evening disc jockey on top-40s Pittsburgh radio station KQV.  Mr. "Christie" couldn't make it in Pittsburgh, so he left radio altogether in 1974, only to reemerge a decade later when he replaced Morton Downey, Jr. on a California radio station under his real name, Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh, of course, eventually became the nation's leading radio host with a massive, and a massively loyal, audience.  Mr. Limbaugh retains his disc jockey sensibilities. He's a clever entertainer, and that's the main reason for his enormous success. No one would mistake Mr. Limbaugh for William F. Buckley or Charles Krauthammer.  Just imagine the brilliant Dr. Krauthammer trying to hold the interest of Limbaugh's audience for three hours every day with his detailed, reasoned, and nuanced analyses of often dull issues. You get the picture.

Last week, Limbaugh's shtick landed him in hot water when he called feminist activist and law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" following Ms. Fluke's testimony before Congressional democrats.  President Obama called Fluke to console her for the injustice. Limbaugh publicly apologized on Saturday, then again Monday. Nine Limbaugh sponsors, so far, have jumped ship in the face of feminist activist pressure, and neither Ms. Fluke nor feminist activists were willing to accept Limbaugh's apology. 

Despite it all, Limbaugh's already considerable audience likely spiked on Monday, and his devotees seem more emboldened than chastened. 

The entire affair is disheartening, a microcosm of a public discourse where the decibel level has been cranked up so high no one can hear what anyone else is saying. Demonizing each other has replaced discussion. Emotion has replaced rationality. Feigned outrage has replaced finding middle ground. And being right is more important than getting it right.

The issues in the Fluke-Limbaugh controversy are more complicated than most people are willing to admit.

I haven't heard a feminist activist call for a boycott of sponsors of Bill Maher's show. Mr. Maher, a hip and angry comic who owes much of his success to Steve Allen, has called Sarah Palin a "twat" and a "cunt." He also called Palin and Congresswoman Bachmann “boobs” and “two bimbos.” 

President Obama did not call Palin to console her after Mr. Maher's comments. If Rush Limbaugh is no Krauthammer, then Bill Maher is not to be mistaken for Paul Krugman.  Both Limbaugh and Maher are entertainers. They say buffoonish things from time to time that offend people, but any "outrage" over the things they say is more feigned than real.

The real issue in dispute has been absurdly blown by some into a "war on women" waged by both the GOP and the Catholic Church. Actually, it is a rather narrow issue (but "narrow" doesn't advance the narrative of ideologues): should private insurance plans be forced by law to cover contraception? This is a problem, say Catholic colleges and hospitals, because it goes against Catholic teachings, and they want an exemption for matters of conscience. President Obama came up with a compromise but it didn't go far enough for the Catholic hierarchy.

The GOP held a Congressional hearing on the issue. Ms. Fluke was not permitted to testify because she has no expertise on it (as if that ever stopped people from testifying in Congress). Unfortunately, the GOP's line-up of witnesses for this hearing included no women at all. The all-male roster was as jarring as old film footage of the moon launches, where the shots of Mission Control picture row after row of men with glasses and pocket protectors, and not a woman in sight. There are plenty of qualified women who could have been asked to weigh-in on the issue of the role conscience should play in the birth control debate.  Because of the GOP's seeming insensitivity in excluding women, the democrats held their own Congressional hearing with idealogue Fluke as speaker.

Ms. Fluke attends Georgetown law school, a Catholic institution, that requires students be enrolled in its health plan. The insurance plan does not cover contraception, and Ms. Fluke made this statement: "Forty percent of female students at Georgetown Law report struggling financially as a result of this policy." http://democrats.oversight.house.gov/images/stories/Testimony_-_Sandra_Fluke.pdf

If it seems disingenuous to say that law students -- burdened with tens of thousands of dollars of crushing tuition debt, not to mention the cost of housing, books, and everything else -- struggle financially because of the cost of contraception, that's just a barometer of the state of our public discourse. Gross exaggeration is as good as the truth if the speaker thinks it advances an agenda.

Ms. Fluke proceeded to make her point by arguing extremes. She said "contraception can cost a woman over $3,000 during law school." She spent most of her time recounting situations where women need contraception for medical reasons, and where they suffer dire consequences without it. The message was simple: the GOP and the Catholic Church don't care about women's reproductive health.

This kind of argumentation is akin to the ultimate "gotcha" used by abortion advocates against people who believe abortion is morally wrong: "He would ban abortion even where the woman is raped!"  The fact that relatively few abortions are sought where rape is involved is beside the point.

Likewise, the fact is, most contraception is used to prevent unwanted pregnancies from recreational sex. That is the principal issue that merits civil discussion. It should not be confused with the much easier issue of mandating contraception coverage due to medical necessity.

The discourse gets even loopier. There is the standard complaint that Viagra is covered for men, so why shouldn't contraception be covered for women?  Whether contraception should be covered is an important question, but it isn't advanced by the Viagra analogy. If a part of woman's anatomy critical to reproduction isn't functioning as it should, every rational person would agree that the cost to remedy it should be covered. Rarely is that cost as cheap as Viagra.

And then, of course, we hear from the usual Catholic bashers. When they discuss the Church's stance on contraception, they insist on bringing up -- you guessed it! -- the child abuse scandal.  This is intended to paint the Church as evil, and to dismiss its position on the contraception issue, and everything else. 

Here's a deal: any time someone insists on bringing up the child abuse scandal when it's not pertinent, they should also be forced to mention the fact that the Catholic Church has done more charitable service for the world than any other private organization in history, by multiple orders of magnitude. That charitable work doesn't excuse the child abuse scandal, but it would bring a little perspective to the discussion.

Not being discussed by anyone is that under the Obama health care law, women would not be charged more than men for health care -- including free contraception that Sandra Fluke says can cost female law students more than $3,000. This is so despite the fact that women traditionally cost more to insure than men.

I, personally, have no problem with spreading the cost of health care between men and women in a gender neutral manner.  Why should women be penalized for being women?  What I do have a problem with is that no one seems to mind when it works the other way: a responsibile young male driver has to pay lots more for auto insurance than his irresponsibile sister because young male drivers as a group cost more to insure. Sorry, it has to work both ways.

My prediction is that between now and November, we will witness the angriest public discourse any of us have ever seen. I don't care which side you're on: that's not good for anyone.