Principled Progressive: Contraception and Punishment

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Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

With the Obama administration’s decision to mandate that insurance companies cover contraceptive services for religious-affiliated employers, sex and all the baggage that comes with it has stormed onto the top national agenda in a major way.

The tenor of the debate is what one might expect with religion and sex being discussed in one breath: loud, angry, cruel and frustrating.

The conversation got hot and heavy real fast. Michelle Bachmann declared that the mandate is the first step towards America implementing China’s brutal one-child policy. Chief Santorum backer Foster Friess “joked” that women can just put an aspirin between their knees for birth control. Rush Limbaugh famously slandered Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law student that was denied the ability to testify before a Congressional committee considering the contraception mandate because she lacked the expertise on the subject. Limbaugh requested that she post videos of herself having sex online as a prerequisite for her getting contraceptive coverage.

Most conservatives would probably like to have you believe that the aforementioned sentiments are a distraction from the true controversy – the one about how the government is undermining the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. At best, such sentiments might have been debatable when the administration first proposed that religiously-affiliated employers pay for the coverage. But the administration compromised by saying that such employers no longer have to pay for contraceptive coverage, but instead insurance companies would be mandated to cover it without passing on costs to the employees.

Religiously-affiliated employers cannot reasonably claim that they are being forced to violate their faith with this compromise. Their money is no longer going directly towards something they find morally wrong, and the argument that their faith is being violated because the compromise forces their tax dollars to subsidize insurance companies coverage of contraception is bankrupt on its face. Everyone’s tax dollars go towards things we find abhorrent. Religious-affiliation does not give them a privileged position in deciding what their tax dollars can and cannot be used for (that is if religious institutions even paid taxes in the first place – which they don’t).

This debate cannot reasonably be focused on the intersection of faith and government yet it rages on. Where, then, is the focus of the controversy? With this question, I return to Limbaugh’s unfortunate remarks. His remarks promulgated the notion that women who request coverage for a legitimate health need are prostitutes or sluts – and not in the sex positive way that The Tart articulates. By demanding videos be posted, Limbaugh wished to shame and punish Fluke, and all women who need contraceptive coverage, for their simple and legal request.

Limbaugh’s comments cannot be viewed in isolation, no matter how loudly conservatives demand they be. The silence emanating from the Republican presidential candidates on the implications of his remarks is deafening. As the Daily Show brilliantly pointed out last week, they cannot denounce Limbaugh because at a fundamental level they agree with him, and if they really don’t agree they have an obligation to say so when explicitly asked.

Moreover, the nature of Limbaugh’s comments reflects a particularly vile strand of modern conservative thought that women (but not men) ought to be punished for having sex and for taking legal measures to prevent pregnancy. Don’t believe such an ideology exists? How, then, can one explain the emergence of so called “ultrasound” bills emanating from Republican-controlled statehouses across the country?

Simply being pro-life is an insufficient explanation. These bills are widely thought to have minimal to zero effect on the overall abortion rate. By forcing women to undergo unwanted and medically unnecessary procedures to make a constitutionally protected choice, proponents of “ultrasound” bills further the ideology of punishing women for having sex, regardless of whatever their declared intent might be.

The decision by women to have sex, or to seek access to contraceptives ought not be punished, just as the decision for men to have sex or seek ED pills is not punished. But if we are to punish women unjustly for having sex and taking the pill, perhaps we need to start taking putative actions against men for having sex and using Viagra. Maybe Ohio State Senator Nina Turner’s bill to restrict access to Viagra is appropriate, as is Virginia State Senator Janet Howell’s bill requiring men receive a digital rectal exam prior to receiving ED medication. Perhaps these bills were introduced tongue and cheek. For some reason, in the year 2012, over 50 years since the Pill was introduced and over 35 years since Roe v. Wade, women’s reproductive rights require more then a bit of comedy to be preserved.


  1. Limbaugh’s comments were reprehensible, but I don’t think objecting to coercing private religious organization to pay for birth control amounts to “punishing” women. If anything, you might argue that the State is punishing certain religious groups for having rigid beliefs concerning contraception. I’m as mad at Rush as anybody, but there is a real religious liberty issue here…

    • Danielle, it’s public money i.e. our tax dollars. If the religious employer wants to avoid paying for their employees’ health needs, they can just opt to stop being publicly funded. It’s not an abridgment of religious rights, it’s an attempt to cop out of the social contract.

      As I’ve said before, if I could choose where my taxes go based on my belief system, I would have paid a LOT less in taxes after having been refunded for the Iraq war. But I don’t make a fuss about my rights being violated (because they weren’t), I just try to vote for the politicians who I think will do the right thing.

    • I think such a concern might have conceivably been justified with the original plan put forward by the administration. I happen to have not had these concerns, but I acknowledged their existence. However the compromise plan effectively negates such concerns. Organizations are no longer required to pay for contraceptive coverage. As such their objections seem very hollow since they are no longer forced to directly violate church doctrine.

      Certain segments the conservative and pro-life movement wants to dramatically raise the costs of women obtaining contraception and abortion services through economic and social means in a way that is unique to women. To me that looks an awful lot like an effort to punish women (but not men) for having sex.

      The Catholic Church might not have had this goal in mind, but it sounds like a lot of its supporters do, especially regarding the “ultrasound” bills. And even if they don’t, the end result is women, especially poorer ones, do get punished for making personal, legal choices. I find such an outcome wholly unacceptable and morally shameful.

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