Civility and radical sexual autonomy

A story that broke this week exposes two currents in our contemporary society–a precipitous lack of civility and a firm commitment to radical sexual autonomy. That the two were exposed in a single ‘story’ is convenient.

As you may have heard, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke testified before a  committee of the House of Representatives.

Her testimony was that women covered by health insurances programs at religious institutions that exempt “reproductive health” from their insurance plans are detrimentally affected by that exemption. Her contention was that such an exemption is punitive toward such women and reproductive health coverage ought to be mandated.

I disagree, at least in part. Fluke states that the cost (over three years) of paying out-of-pocket for contraception can amount to $3,000. That is not an inconsequential cost. And I understand that it would seem unjust that two students (at comparable law schools) could be paying comparable premiums for comparable services and yet one would be forced to pay for contraception (at or around $3,000) and the other not (or at least charged only for a prescription copayment of $5-$25).

In order to think through this issue, we have to balance this claim against a counter claim to see which is more compelling. The counter claim simply is this: that Georgetown University is a religious institution related to a Christian Church for whom it is a batter of theological belief that contraception violates the will of God for His people (see the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae).

The question then becomes: which interest is more compelling? Is it more important for the government to protect the right of women to have access to contraception or for the government to protect the right of a Church to exercise its religious beliefs freely? I would say that the latter is more compelling and note that, in general, I am in favor of government-funded health insurance.

A presupposition of Ms. Fluke’s testimony is that she, as an autonomous moral agent, ought to be able to make decisions about sexual behavior without interference (even in the form of non-coverage of contraception) from any party other than (conceivably) her hypothetical sexual partner or partners. By refusing to cover the cost of contraception, Georgetown is compelling law students to alter their sexual behavior or to engage in behavior that is dangerous (i.e., might get one pregnant). The individual has been dethroned and, as a result, the cry of oppression arises.

To be fair, Ms. Fluke lays out cases to demonstrate that her case doesn’t necessarily rely on an appeal to ‘freedom of dalliance.’ She offers the case of the women with ovarian cysts. And my heart goes out to that woman and, I agree, it seems unreasonable that an insurance company and/or university would be unable to conceive of contraceptive medication beyond its instrumentality to stop pregnancies. There is much, however, that we don’t know about the specific case she references. For one, we do not know that the only effective treatment for her condition is taking  such medication. Are there alternatives? Has she exhausted her appeals to the insurance company and the university? On balance, it is compelling but not enough to outweigh the broader, more fundamental case–the desire for absolutely sexual autonomy.

I might add that a second presupposition (that I cannot explore here) is that pregnancy is a disease, a pathology, something to be controlled and manipulated and made to fit into the exact point in the narrative of our life where we wish it to go. This is unsettling.

And to eddy of cultural forces already at play in the discussion of reproductive rights, the freedom of religious expression, and the theoretical framework in which we fit pregnancy, an individual by the name of Rush Limbaugh (see right).

Here’s how Limbaugh responded to Fluke’s testimony (as reported by the BBC):

What does it say about the college co-ed Susan [sic] Fluke who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex…. It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

Limbaugh’s critique (perhaps an overly generous word) is not that this is all about the desire for absolute autonomy in sexual practice. As far as I can tell, he’s fine with that part of the narrative. In fact, his critique advances an equally individualistic view–he’s concerned that we (the taxpayer) will be forced to pay for the mitigation of the consequences of sexual encounters.

That critique (while I don’t really agree with it) is fair enough. What isn’t fair, however, it to presuppose that Ms. Fluke’s case is really only about her own sexual behavior. This woman clearly has a proven track record of caring about access to reproductive health resources. And while, in general, that’s not something I’m particularly passionate about and often am opposed to (where it is code for abortion) I respect her commitment to a cause she cares about.

Limbaugh, however, wants to win his argument at any cost. In general when speaking with co-belligerents the easiest way to win a case (because your opponent isn’t present) is poking fun at her. So reasoned discussion gives way to, “she’s a slut who wants us to pay her to have sex.” This is clearly misogynistic if for no other reason that, in general, I’m sure there are an equal number of male students at GW eager for contraception to be subsidized as well. Limbaugh too easily falls into the “women who want sex are sluts” and “boys will be boys” metanarrative that has haunted our life together east of Eden.

Limbaugh has the right to his opinions and to broadcast those opinions. However, if he really cares about the health of our society (and not just about his own wealth) I would suggest that he apologize and begin to speak a little more carefully in future.