In what was called an “accommodation” Obama made it clear in a February 10 press conference that all women would have access to free contraceptives but offered through their insurance companies and not through the institutions that employ them which may be affiliated with the Catholic Church that opposes contraception. It would be a shame if this explanation is interpreted as Obama on the defensive, having stepped back from “making a mistake.” 

Defensiveness in this case is entirely inappropriate. It is no shame to work to expand the availability of contraception. On the contrary it’s a goal to be proud of. An Institute of Medicine report recommended a major expansion of birth control services to women. Women with unintended pregnancies account for almost half of pregnancies in the U.S., and those women are more likely to smoke, consume alcohol, be depressed and experience domestic violence. The IOM also said that expanding birth control services to women will cut down on the number of abortions and make women healthier. To be for contraception is to be pro life. 

There was an outcry from the Catholic hierarchy against Obama’s plan to make cost-free contraception available to all.  If contraception is good for women and children there ought to be an outcry from the other side, those who want to attack global poverty, decrease infant and maternal mortality, and strengthen families and women’s self determination.  

Jill Warren, executive director, Methodist Federation for Social Action said it best, when interviewed on the PBS Newshour February 9: “Contraception, controlling whether you can plan your family, whether you can space your children, whether you want to have children, is a basic health issue. It’s a biological fact that women can be impregnated, and against our will, I might add. So it absolutely is a health issue…for me, the policy is just good public policy for the common good.” Warren also said “barriers to education, barriers to the work force all center around whether you can control your own reproductive health.”  In other words working against the availability of contraception is also an issue of discrimination.

The original Obama plan was not a violation of religious liberty.   No one was being urged, let alone compelled, to violate their beliefs and purchase contraceptives.  On the contrary, it is the (heavily government subsidized) private sector religious institutions that seek to impose their will. When the Catholic hierarchy talks about the suppression of religious liberty it is talking about institutions, not individuals, claiming that their religious freedom is being violated (is this like the personhood of corporations as funders?). 

These institutions are powerful. The fifth national survey of American Catholics appeared in National Catholic Reporter on October 28, 2011; a major finding was that Catholics of all generations, and both sexes, have consistently said in five surveys during the past 25 years that they do not see the bishops as the proper locus of moral authority on the matter of the use of contraception.  Rather they believe that their conscience should be the proper locus.  Only 11% look to the bishops.  One Catholic theologian Daniel Mcguire cautions however not to underestimate that 11%: “the bishops have a terrific amount of scare power for politicians.” They have found an issue for their battle in Obama’s birth control decision. Non-Catholics are being told to stay away from the issue. Michael Sean Winters, also in National Catholic Reporter (NYT, 2/10/12), said, “no matter what people think about contraception, that’s an internal Catholic debate. Catholics do not like interlopers.”

To say that non-Catholics should leave the issue alone is not an acceptable position. The Catholic Church cannot arrogate to itself the right to decide this issue “internally” while in the meantime urging on politicians to come down hard on the anti-contraception side. The community as a whole (America) should not facilitate a particular hierarchy imposing its views, even on its own members, especially when those views offend the moral convictions of large numbers of other Americans.


— Elizabeth Spiro Clark
November 21, 2011

Much of the undertone of commentary on Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s ouster was to “balance” the good he had done with his failure to protect young boys from his deputy Jerry Sandusky’s alleged longstanding sexual predation record. There is a “higher good” to consider in this case, it was said. The higher good was defined as all the contributions his winning football team, the Nittany Lions, and his personal financial endowments contributed to Penn State’s bottom line and reputation.

“Joe is a devout Catholic. He’s a beautiful person. He’s a wonderful coach,” a fellow coach Vince McAneney was quoted as saying (see Joe Nocera oped, NYT, 11/11). McAneney seemed to be making the statement that “devout” Catholics are not immoral. It is presumptuous, no doubt, to claim to have the measure of an individual morally and spiritually. However, it is not presumptuous to make a judgment on what the “higher good” in this case is. The higher good was protecting those boys. Joe Paterno would have almost certainly gotten no public credit for following this higher good. There would have been no statue built of Joe Paterno for protecting those kids. He might even have been excoriated for betraying his team and his university.

Herman Cain represents money and power too. On the same day the Philadelphia Inquirer was drenched in the Penn State scandal a column on Herman Cain’s presidential campaign was a riff on the odd fact that Cain seemed to be running for money not office. His TV ads in the Florida straw poll didn’t ask for campaign organizing help or outline policy positions but instead plugged sales of his book: “Consider giving a loved one a copy of “This is Herman Cain”, he tells his audience.

For Cain public service just doesn’t fit into his ideas of what has value: money and power – masculine power. You don’t question powerful men for hitting on women, especially if the women are needy, want a job, for instance. Cain trashed his one named sexual harassment accuser because she had filed for bankruptcy. His women accusers aren’t rich and famous. They are disposable, targets of contempt. They are women that dare to get in the way of powerful men.

The abused boys at Penn State – a much worse corruption of power – were treated as if they were disposable too. As one abused boy was alleged to have said of Sandusky “you just can’t tell him no”. He was strong. He did what he wanted.

Another story of “disposable” people is the shocking story of how the richest and most powerful man of them all – Apple’s Steve Jobs – tolerated terrible conditions in the factories of his subsidiary, Foxcom, in China. According to a report in the Guardian this past spring workers were driven to suicide, nets placed under dormitory windows to prevent “jumpers”. Workers were asked to sign a statement promising not to kill themselves and pledging to “treasure their lives”. But I digress.

There is the strong whiff of the wolf pack here, marauding for food and sex, and, in the case of humans, money. The culture of the locker room is the culture of physical power and in the case of the winning team, money. The passionate identity and investment of Americans in their sports teams can truly be called tribal.

This is the culture of the Republican presidential candidates who blame the lower 99% for not having the power to get enough stuff for themselves. Remember that Bush 43 owned a baseball team and ran his campaigns and his foreign policy like sports competitions. When Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell says his only goal is beating Obama he might as well be a Penn State rioter. The only thing to value is crushing the other side. It was nauseating but not surprising to hear Republican audiences applauding at Gov Perry’s record number of executions or pollsters finding 67% percent of Republicans support torture. It doesn’t matter if you are successful (Bush 43 was not) as long as you swear fealty to the culture of aggression. It’s manly to eat pizza and French fries and not “submit” like a weak woman to federal government regulations on school lunches. Strength is rejecting a tomato sauce that can be called a vegetable serving.

The Republican idea that cutting government at all levels and reducing taxes on business will free capitalism to work its mythical magic and create jobs, is also a back door to cutting back the empowerment of women. In the present political climate, who is even talking about the Lilly Ledbetter Act to ensure equal pay for equal work? Who in federal, state and local governments Republicans are working to emasculate is going to enforce it?

The New York Times published September 15 the results of a study that finds that government contracting out its services to the private sector is more expensive than performing the services with government employees. Although not a part of any study I am aware of it, is obvious that privatizing public sector jobs also would reduce pressure on fair employment practices and the availability of jobs for women.

When I lived in Norway in the early nineties, my colleague’s wife delivered triplets, one of whom had Downs Syndrome. They were visited almost immediately by a social worker whose responsibility was to work with health problems in the area where they lived. Even though they were not Norwegian they continued to enjoy valuable and intensive help. These health and welfare offices and departments were disproportionately staffed by women. This was directly connected with the fact that a very significant portion of Norwegian members of Parliament had had backgrounds in public service. While the US Congress is dominated by male lawyers, Norway’s Parliament had then almost 50% women, many with experience in the public welfare sector. Norway’s funding priorities reflected this gender composition.

If the Republicans succeed in reducing government it will reduce American democracy – the less government, the smaller the area for democratic accountability and the less pressure to build a fair and compassionate society. When we look at the impact various plans for job creation will have it is important to link the opportunities for women with the Republican drive to reduce public sector employment.
— Elizabeth Spiro Clark