Monday, March 5, 2012

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a whore

Almost lost in the reaction to Rush Limbaugh's recent diatribe against Sandra Fluke is the utterly stupid nature of his attack: Limbaugh simply doesn't know how birth control works. At least not the pills (unless he thinks that, like Foster Freeze's aspirins, they're used between the knees). Hormonal birth control is, as anybody with a modicum of biological knowledge understands, an ongoing process. It's actually the processual aspect of The Pill and its more modern cousins that makes it a valuable tool in women's health care. Regulating hormones through pill-use can ameliorate all manner of ills perpetrated on the female body by Mother Nature.

Now, as my little cadre of readers probably already know, I'm not generally in favor of messing with Mom. In my utopia, people manage fertility through body-knowledge and restraint. But I happily rode the wave of hormonal and barrier birth-control throughout my reproductive life, which ended abruptly at age 40 with a tubal ligation. And not once during all that time was I paid to have sex.

Instead, I paid for my participation in cutting-edge science when my first pregnancy occurred in spite of, and then was ended by, a little device called the "Dalkon Shield." I had switched to an IUD after a student walked into my office one day and asked, "How long have you been on birth control pills?" Impertinent as the question was, it alerted me to the fact that I bore a "mask of pregnancy"--a characteristic gathering of freckles under my eyes and across my nose caused by the hormones I was taking daily, and had been since 1968, when I married for the first time. So, on the advice of my top-of-the-line doctors at Penn, I switched to a nifty little fish-shaped device that was all the rage, at least until it caused millions of women to suffer the kind of bodily indignity I had: a late miscarriage which had probably not ever even been viable because I had conceived while it was still in place, and then had to have it removed. (I did not join in the suit against the manufacturer.) Fortunately for me (unlike many others whose fertility was compromised), my subsequent pregnancies progressed uneventfully and produced my now thirty-five year-old son and thirty-three year-old daughter.

On the surface, if you read some of the coverage concerning Limbaugh's tirade (like this article in Forbes), the argument seems to center on whether or not these guys should have to pay for contraception as a part of health care contributions (hence the "paying for sex" connection, however spurious). The ostensible reason for the initial congressional testimony had to do with the freedom of religious institutions to abstain from contraceptive coverage for reasons of conscience and/or belief. The financial aspect of this whole controversy is what I find most peculiar, because it assumes that none of us should pay with our hard-earned money for anything we don't believe in. So, if I don't believe in augmenting male sexual potency I shouldn't have to pay for Viagra if it's included in my company's health plan? Or, if I don't believe in capital punishment, I shouldn't have to pay for it with my hard-earned tax dollars?

But what if paying for contraception actually saves us all money? Family planning is one of those bugaboos of life that used to be something of a joke. For a long time it was downright illegal, and then it was chancy. Women had three choices: abstinence, diaphragms, and condoms. What the advent of birth control pills really initiated was a greater ability for a wife to reliably negotiate her fertility instead of relying on her husband's understanding and restraint (or the mainstay of the '50s, a set of twin beds); it most certainly didn't turn women into prostitutes--although it undoubtedly helped many prostitutes keep from becoming mothers.

Ever since men discovered that they had something to do with making babies (see my rant on this here), they've increasingly tried to 1) take credit for it all (by "planting a seed" in the womb) or 2) control reproduction by deciding when a woman would have sex, whether or not she wanted it. The only way women could reliably stay childless was to become a cloistered nun (and that probably wasn't a sure bet, either). Modern means of birth control ended all that, we thought, for once and for all. But in large part, men still control the pill-box by means of purse-strings, as we have seen in the last several weeks. And nothing makes that clearer than the photograph that opens this post (religious leaders being sworn in to testify in the Issa Committee hearings--all of them male).

The Republican presidential candidates all seem to have decided that men (religious men) really do need to be deciding for all women when they will have kids and how many. And their supporters are now willing to decide for all of us, regardless of how we understand the questions of "personhood" or the roll sex plays in human experience. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a display of religious and political bigotry as has shown up in campaign discourse these last few weeks.

This is the message these guys are sending to women: it doesn't matter how smart you are, how well you understand science, or what your religious beliefs are. If you don't follow our line of "reasoning," and if you don't buy into our particular religious doctrine, you're not only wrong, you're a wanton slut for wanting to have sex without getting pregnant.

You'd think these guys would be only too happy to let Lefties and Progressives have all the birth control they want, because in the end there would be far fewer opponents to reactionary platforms; they might have one or two--or no--kids, while Tea Partiers and more holy folk have seven.

I'm reminded of the old joke that made the rounds during some of the Roe v. Wade battles: If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.

The attitudes we're seeing during this campaign are eerily (and frighteningly) reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian reading of the future in The Handmaids Tale. At the moment, it's still just a thought experiment about what could happen if a particular group of men (and their complicit wives) manage to gain further control of women's bodies. What should be a question of women's health has turned into a proto-manifesto of some men's desire to decide what's best for us. Let's just hope that the more sensible and enlightened members of their gender can join with women to forge a better alternative.