Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blunt and Sharia Law

Sen. Roy Blunt (R. Mo.) filed legislation to amend the Affordable Care Act (Obama's healthcare reform) so that any employer can refuse to pay premiums on a healthcare plan that pays for procedures that the employer finds morally objectionable. This would apply to any employer, not just religious organizations.

The stupidity of this bill is so breathtaking that it could only come from a southern Republican (well, OK, Missouri was a border state during the Civil ... er ... "War Between the States" AKA the "Northerners' invasion to destroy our Peculiar Institution"). I presume that the next step is to make payment of taxes subject to the same "freedom."

Anyway, fools are usually arrogant and so it is with Blunt and his supporters. They assume that this reasoning will help just Christian yahoos. But the old Law of Unintended Consequences provides a delicious irony. The Bluntniks hate Sharia  Law but have now suggested providing followers of Islamic law tremendous power to enforce it on others. Would devout Moslem employers pay premiums to any plan that had hospitals or doctors who violated the Sharia precepts? Of course not: such care-givers could not have females treating males, say, or serve non-Halal (say pork) food, or ... who knows what?

And of course, once you start exempting all the various shades and sects of religion and superstition (Jehovah's Witnesses, Orthodox Jews, Christian Scientists, Wiccans and whatever) there won't be anyone paying for anyone else's healthcare. Eventually, if they get their way, no one will pay taxes at all. At which point we won't be any more than a tenth-rate septic field in the "community" of nations. 

Yes, that's what I mean by "What part of beneath contempt don't you understand?"

Monday, February 13, 2012

It's the birth control, stupid

The Republican party, to its electoral disadvantage, is being dragged around by its right-wing faction. Couldn't happen to a nicer party. Of course, one wonders exactly what the Republican party is these days outside of religious fundamentalists and economic reactionaries.

The latest Republican no-win position has been staked out by the Holy Rollers with the very public help of the U.S. Council of Bishops. One might have some sympathy for a church that has opposed birth control for nearly two millenia. Demanding that the Catholic Church pay directly for birth control for its direct employees (priests, bishops, Church administration) is a little like demanding that synagogues provide ham sandwiches for yeshiva students: This is a obligation to provide a service that is against the principles of those who are asked to provide it, and -- presumably -- is undesired by those for whom it must be provided.

However, extending this line of reasoning to employees of religious organizations who are not involved directly in religious work is quite a bit more problematic. An employee of a Catholic public charity -- say a hospital -- may very well not be a Catholic (nor can any church demand that such employees adhere to specific religious beliefs). The Church can no more avoid the standards of healthcare established by our secular government than it can avoid the standards of competence associated with professional licensing established by that same government.

Another problem with the Catholic Bishops' argument, and similar arguments from other large and aggressive Christian groups, is that there are unforeseen (for them) consequences. For example, does the Church of Christ Scientist (love that use of "scientist") have to pay any healthcare premiums to any of its employees, since it advocates prayer as the sole source of healing? Jehovah's Witnesses object to, among other medical procedures, blood transfusions. And what about asking female Moslem nurses and doctors to attend to male patients, or be associated with non-Halal meals (similarly for Jews)? Mainstream or majority religions -- all Christian -- tend to think that the prerogatives they demand will be exclusively theirs, and not be extended to religions that they ignore or disdain. In fact, if history is any guide, they would actively fight against providing these dispensations to these other religions or belief systems.

Even the mainstream media in this country have pointed out that the vast majority of Americans strongly support both birth control, its universal availability, and its coverage under health care plans. A recent Fox News Poll records Americans in favor of birth control coverage by insurers by a nearly 2 to 1 margin. Yet Fox News dutifully attacks the Obama administration for simply recognizing this clear mandate.

Support for birth control has been strong for many decades now -- even among Catholics (better than 58% according to the Fox poll mentioned above).  Yet, true to the traditional desire of religions to impose their will on others, the Catholic hierarchy -- yes, the same hierarchy that shuttled priests out of harm's way when they were found to be sexually abusing young children -- along with the crusaders of the religious right still want to decrease Americans' access to family planning.

There are several reasons for opposition to birth control. First, there is the biblical injunction "Go forth and multiply" and its corollary that the primary -- if not only -- purpose of sex is reproduction, and any of use of sex is sinful. Pope Pius XI complicated the issue by asserting (19030) that sex also has the "unitary" role of encouraging love (between married couples). In any case, the only contraceptive measures allowed (religiously) for Catholics is timing of intercourse with infertility (the "rhythm method"). This seems to me more a political dispensation than a consistent religious one, since the intent of this method is clearly allowance of sexual pleasure accompanied by avoidance of pregnancy.

The Christian right, in general, opposes birth control outside of marriage because it believes that removing the "threat of pregnancy", or even knowledge of how to do it, will encourage promiscuity among the young (and the not-so-young).

Abortion is another but not separate issue. Those religions which forbid it do so because it is considered murder. But to be murder, one has to define when there is a human to be murdered. The scholastic Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274) defined life to begin at quickening (when the fetus can be detected by its movements); this is similar to the classical Jewish definition. Since then, however, the Church has set back the moment of life to the instant of conception, where it is asserted that the soul enters the body. Until recently the exact mechanism of conception/fertilization, implantation and growth was not known.  This is important because chemical/hormonal methods of birth control work at various moments in this sequence,  disrupting the entrance of the sperm into the ovum, then the process of fertilization, and finally the implantation of the fertilized egg into the wall of the uterus and its further development. The medical definition of the term pregnancy is the period immediately after implantation but before birth. The American Council of Catholic Bishops defines pregnancy, however, as beginning with fertilization. (Barney Frank famously asserted, in reference to the fact that anti-abortionists were often very tight-fisted with programs to help the sick and poor, that "they believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth" -- Sept. 7, 2005.)

The political problem that the anti-choice and anti-birth-control people have is that contraceptive pills sometimes work by preventing the fetus -- i.e. the fertilized egg -- from implanting, thus preventing it from developing, thus resulting in its destruction. It necessarily follows that if you are anti-abortion you must be anti-birth-control-pill. Since "The Pill" is overwhelmingly popular (even among Catholics), this forces anti-abortion people into a politically untenable position. Outlawing The Pill is simply not going to fly. This is not such a problem for orthodox Catholics, since they are opposed to contraception in any case, but it does put anti-choice people who support birth-control (or at least say they do) in a bind.

(Of the other contraceptive defices, the IUD's problems are even worse than the pill since it always destroys the "fetus" by preventing implantation, though this wasn't always known. Condoms work only by preventing sperm-egg contact so are innocent of any charges of causing abortions.)

As usual, the tactic taken by these people and their Republican allies is to attack on other fronts -- mostly by starving out those who try to offer the services that they don't approve of. We just saw this in the flap around the Komen breast cancer fund's refusal to continue working with Planned Parenthood. Only a small fraction of  Planned Parenthood's efforts go toward abortions (at most 2%) but the organization is an important agent working for women's reproductive health, including birth control. The attacks on the Obama administration over whether churches must supply contraceptive funding under the new healthcare act is not just about  churches -- it is yet another attack on the healthcare plan itself and part of a larger attack on contraception itself.

President Obama didn't take seriously warnings about the overall strategy and tactics of his enemies on the right (which includes the entire Republican party); he lost a considerable amount of political skin over that mistake. If he thinks that the Council of Bishops or the religious right will accept any sort of compromise over birth control he still hasn't learned enough.