Sexual rights, and hold the sex, please: Sandra Fluke and the silence of the slut

Why don’t sexual rights defenders talk about sex anymore?

I lost my sexual license for not stopping at a red light

A year or so ago I went to a talk in New Haven by Linda Greenhouse and Reva Siegel, who had just edited a documentary history of part of women’s long struggle for reproductive rights in the US.  Before Roe V Wade: Voices That Shaped the Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court’s Ruling collects materials from the 1960s and before, a period when, as they write, “a conversation about the legitimate grounds for abortion” slowly turned into “an argument about the legitimacy of government control over abortion.”  (They sum up some of the book’s key findings here.) One tool feminists used was women’s own testimony: women wrote their stories of how the laws against abortion had shaped and distorted their lives, particularly their sexual choices. These autobiographies of unfreedom reaffirm my own faith in narrative, as a way both of making injustice real and of repairing, in some measure, the breach it gores in the fabric of human living. At our best, as human rights activists, we’re storytellers, and our one shared belief is that stories still have power.

Still, what struck me most about Greenhouse and Siegel’s account was how these testimonies, voices from a not-too-distant history, have been forgotten. They mentioned how they went to the National Organization for Women, a custodian of much of the material, to ask if some of it could be useful in contemporary advocacy, at a time when abortion rights are under multiplying fire. The answer was no. Too many of the women argued against the old abortion laws because the lack of access undermined their sexual freedom. And discussing sexual freedom these days is doubleplusungood. You talk about equality, you talk about privacy, you talk about responsible motherhood and informed choice. But just wanting to have sex, shudder, is not a respectable goal.

I was reminded of this by Rush Limbaugh (thanks, Rush!) and his full-bore assault on Sandra Fluke. Fluke, if you’ve been too busy screwing to watch the news for a week, is a law student at Georgetown University, a Catholic institution; she testified to Congress on why the health insurance such schools offer should cover contraception. In response Limbaugh did the impossible, which was to outdo himself. In two successive broadcasts he went after her. First:

“Can you imagine if you were her parents how proud … you would be? Your daughter … testifies she’s having so much sex she can’t afford her own birth control pills and she wants President Obama to provide them, or the Pope. … What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? 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.”

This being insufficient, he followed with an offer:

“So Miss Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Defending Rush: Look, I can spell!

There is so much to say about Rush that there’s really nothing to say; he exhausts indignation, and somewhere in the Library of Babel all the condemning has been done already. I particularly like the logic of implying that if the public –that is, the government — protects some aspect of your life, it has eminent domain over it in return; thus if the state defends your private life, in fact it owns your private life, meaning that the right to privacy eliminates privacy, very neatly.   By the same reasoning, the fire truck that comes to save your house from burning down should also stay to claim possession. This vast extension of public interest and public ownership flies rather in the face of Limbaugh’s professed disdain for socialism.  But I imagine strict ideological purity yields right-of-way to his desire to watch some sex tapes.

Still, Emily Bazelon on Slate sees in the furious reaction to Rush’s overreach a Zeitgeist Moment, an indication that talking about sexual freedom might suddenly, once again, be OK.  “Sluts unite!” she writes, because “sex positivity is recharging feminism”:

Reclaiming the word slut is also the aim of the SlutWalks, the protest movement that started last spring in Canada and spread to more than 70 cities worldwide. Taking angry inspiration from a Toronto police officer who said the best way for women to prevent being raped is to “avoid dressing like sluts,” the women joining in SlutWalks have marched in all manner of bras, bodices, and other scanty dress. They won both enthusiastic applause and ambivalence from the feminist blogosphere. SlutWalks, and the broader reclamation projection they and Fluke stand for, represent a cultural shift that puts women’s sexual agency front and center rather than modestly cloaking it.

Bazelon points for support to an article, “Slutwalking in the Shadow of the Law,” by Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Depaul law professor who analyzes the SlutWalks’ potential impact on rape law. (I am not sure whether my affiliation with Harvard, that bastion of the 1%, gives me an invidious access to this article denied the needy 99%; if you can’t open it, let me know and I’ll send it to you.) Tuerkheimer argues that for women, “sexual agency (as opposed to sex itself) is integral to equality.” But she also contends that  “sexual agency presents profound dilemmas, dilemmas yet to be adequately addressed in practice or in legal theory.”

This is, of course, because women’s experience of that agency is “imperfect,” marred by systemic inequalities in law and society alike. (Skip this paragraph if you have an aversion to the turgid.) However, Tuerkheimer suggests, this inadequate experience of agency has led observers systematically to assume that sexual agency women’s attempt both to enjoy and control sexuality — itself produces and reinforces inequality, instead of being flawed by it.  Asserting your sexual autonomy sexualizes you, so the story goes; it’s not, then, that being sexualized by consumer culture trivializes and constrains your sexual autonomy. The fact that various engines of culture objectify and then repress women, for example, is treated as the result of women’s claim to sexual agency, a claim that intrinsically endangers them.  This assumption is as infectious within feminism as within patriarchal thought.   Tuerkheimer instead argues for a vision of women’s sexual agency as a positive good, with objectification and sexualization as unjust restraints upon it, rather than consequences. She laments only the fact that the SlutWalk movement has preferred engaging with how police, politics, and culture treat rape, and neglected the letter of the law — because she sees rape law as an urgent area of contest.  The law assumes women behaving sexually (especially in “deviant” ways) are laying themselves open to rape, and for Tuerkheimer this is fundamentally a threat to their sexual agency.

The legal treatment of female sexual subjectivity has consequences that are real and unexamined. By advancing a non-­agentic view of women’s sexuality, the law constrains agency, both by limiting protection from non-­stranger rape, and by placing certain consensual behaviors off limits to “normal” women. …

First, the law defines rape in a manner that is decidedly not in keeping with a sexually agentic view of women. Most glaringly, non-­consent is dispossessed of meaning as a marker of rape; force assumes this role. Moreover, the presence of consent is imagined in the strangest of circumstances, including a woman’s total passivity. In short, by equating non-­action with consent, the substantive law of rape effectively turns women into sexual objects. Second, what I call the law of sexual patterns defines certain sexual behaviors on the part of women as deviant, establishing what amount to presumptions of unrapeability.

In other words, for both Bazelon and Tuerkheimer, the SlutWalks’ loud shout that sexual freedom is good can reinvigorate feminist advocacy in an arena where patriarchy still chokes progressive thought.

Is there “a cultural shift that puts women’s sexual agency front and center”? As Gandhi said of Western civilization: It would be a nice idea. But I’m not sure the Zeitgeist is fertile ground for this just yet. Consider, for a starting point, the photo Slate chose to illustrate Bazelon’s blog post:

That’s Sandra Fluke, and what is she doing with that button?  It’s a weird picture to accompany the article, and one can only assume it’s meant either subtly or subconsciously to ironize the claim that sluthood — the deliberate embrace of sexuality — is a credible political position. Either she’s buttoning the thing demurely, in which case Rush is ridiculous mainly because he’s wrong –how could such a respectable, black-jacketed young lady, a law student after all, be sex-mad? Or she’s unbuttoning it for somebody’s intrusive gaze, suggesting that sluttiness isn’t about enjoying sex for one’s own sake, but staging a stripshow for an overlord onlooker’s domineering imagination: a highly old-style, patriarchal interpretation. The first trope largely dominated how Fluke was seen in the days after her unwilling pop-culture coronation. Of course she doesn’t want contraceptives just to have sex!  She’s going to use them to decorate the Baby Jesus in her church crèche.  Much as Republicans assure us that the war on contraception isn’t about contraception, it’s about Religious Freedom, so right-thinking progressives promise that sexual rights aren’t about sex at all, they’re about Responsibility. In the same online magazine with Bazelon, William Saletan argued that Fluke is really a paragon of rational restraint when it comes to sexuality:

Referring to a woman who sought contraception, Limbaugh scoffed, “Here’s a woman exercising no self-control. “ Is that what contraception is? Or is it, as many users and proponents see it, a way of taking responsibility for sex? … When people use birth control, are they doing so to indulge their desires, or to exercise a kind of self-control?

And Janet Dahl lists all the non-sex-related reasons why birth control is a good thing:

The fact is, many women DO use contraception for hormonal balance, relief from estrogen based cysts and acne, endometriosis pain. Or to regulate the timing and duration of cycles to prevent anemia.  … The imputation that anyone using contraception is promiscuous is beyond ridiculous.

But don’t some women use them to have more sex?  And what’s wrong with that? You would think that these medicines had nothing to do with the reproductive system at all, and the reproductive system had nothing to do with sex: that we multiply with spores, and that those pills are CNS depressants so powerful that just one will turn you into a morose, pompous moralist with whom no sensible person would sleep or even converse, somewhere between Roger Scruton and Prince Charles.

If that’s the way we defend contraception, contraception is in trouble. Praising it on grounds remote from the actual uses people put it to, and the actual pleasure they derive from it, leaves a defense aridly distant from real experiences and lives. Yasmin Nair wonders, sensibly, “What, pray tell, if Fluke is indeed a slut?” Who would still come to her aid?  Not many. But fewer, I’d think, than would want to but not dare.

The widespread support for Fluke is built entirely on the idea that she is not a slut and that she has been, as Andrea Mitchell put it, “victimised.”  Fluke, we are constantly being assured, does not have promiscuous sex and Limbaugh is entirely wrong because his “slur” is based on a misrepresentation not only of her position but of her very character … Can we please remember that it’s also perfectly fine that women need access to birth control because they really do like having lots of sex and being, generally, you know, sluts?  For fuck’s sake, we fought for the Pill and access to contraception because we once thought that boundless sex without consequences—whether with one person or with many, at the same time or sequentially, either way—is a pretty good thing.

It seems to me, in fact, that in learning to speak of sexuality as an area of rights, we have gained a great deal but lost other discursive possibilities; and one loss has been the fluency to define sexuality (as we once did) as an arena of human liberation. Think the ’60s!  Where did all that dreaming go? The ecstatic and utopian sides of sex, the moments of jouissance and transcendence of the normal self, lie shed by the wayside like spun-off, stripped tires. In the process, we’ve also abandoned the ability to speak comprehensibly to other movements for whom “liberation” is still a meaningful language. From the revolutionary aspirations of the wretched of the earth to the land claims of indigenous peoples, there persists an automatic presumption that sexual rights are either faintly irrelevant to the cause, or a rich person’s luxury. My belief is this is not because we talk about sex too much. I believe it’s because we don’t talk about it enough — truthfully, realistically, grittily, and materially enough, so that it takes its place with other material realities and the oppressors stand with the other oppressors of human possibility on the tangible and daily plane.

I'll pay that price: Anti-porn film

In particular, the idea of “pleasure” (without which it’s impossible to talk about the obstructions to experiencing pleasure) seems wrongly suspect. I’m convinced rather a lot of Western feminists have persuaded themselves, with a mixture of arrogance and shame, that pleasure is a Western invention and cannot be spread or spoken abroad.   An American working in Uganda once said to me, guiltily, “You can’t talk with women here about pleasure, because they’ve never felt it.”  This is astonishing, but not an uncommon notion. Beyond the circumstance of female genital mutilation –which I think was at least in the back of the speaker’s mind, a thing sometimes accurately documented but a rich field for fantasy as well — it reflects a direr, deeper prejudice. Unlike Sandra Fluke, who at least knows where her button is, Third World women don’t know enough about their own machinery to tell what to press. It’s certainly true that the flow of pleasure through the body is culturally constrained and partly constructed; we learn to eroticize as we learn to read or walk. But no culture has an authoritative instruction manual, and the idea of an alienation from one’s own physicality so complete as to define femininity outside North America and Europe — where the onslaught of psychiatry, self-help books, and cheap electricity apparently overcame it — is not just absurd but, well, missionary in its implications.  There’s no universal language of pleasure, but languages to talk about different pleasures are, for people trying to be political about sex, a pressing need.

“Pleasure” is always a fraught concept; and despite the efforts of some sexual rights advocates to argue for it, I don’t think a “right to pleasure” exists as a tenable idea. Still, there are plenty of other rights we urge and value mainly because they please us. In fact, most of them are like that. We don’t just envision them as legally obligatory goods. They make our lives happier and deeper; they open new vistas to our galloping desires; and the intellectual satisfaction of, say, freely mounting the speaker’s rostrum to exercise our liberty of expression doesn’t exclude from time to time a more tactile frisson. What’s better as a release from stress or anger than the happy relief of letting the syllable fuck roll like one of Demosthenes‘ pebbles off the public tongue?

But we don’t talk about that. Of course, in the modern world we talk about sex all the time — but when it comes to its intersection with rights, exactitude melts like butter and we get all tongue-tied. Here in the US, as I’ve noted, the rhetoric of the “right to choose” is the dominant way of defending abortion and reproductive rights in general. It conveniently elides what you’re choosing. It asserts the right but eviscerates it of substantive content. And this is not just because we’re diffident in speaking about abortion, but also because we feel a comprehensive timorousness in talking about sex. Greenhouse and Siegel investigated where this rhetoric came from, and found an early memorandum “framing the issue of how the pro-repeal position should be described”:

“Right to life is short, catchy, composed of monosyllabic words — an important consideration in English. We need something comparable. Right to choose would seem to do the job. And … choice has to do with action, and it’s action that we’re concerned with.”

But what kind of action? On that, we’re silent. A veil of discretion settles over what, in specificity and practice, the right means.

The US Supreme Court has, in a number of decisions with impressively sweeping language, outlined the idea of an intimate sphere of decision-making where liberty ought to prevail. They run from Griswold v Connecticut, which established a right to contraception (and a right to privacy into the bargain) to Lawrence v Texaswhich overturned sodomy laws.   (Oddly enough, Roe v Wade itself does not stand firmly in this tradition. It turned less on a woman’s “right to choose” than on the authority of doctors to make decisions unhampered by a moralizing law. 1992’s Planned Parenthood v Caseywritten by the reliably rhetorical Justice Kennedy, outlines a much broader basis for the right to abortion in personal decision-making, a woman’s ability to shape her “destiny” based on “her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.” At the same time, paradoxically, it narrowed the right to abortion itself considerably.) Yet what’s conspicuous about these decisions is that, while most of them are about sex in one way or another, few say so. The exact content of privacy, of the intimate realm of decisions self-shaking in their importance, goes undescribed. Privacy is a “penumbra,” a zone of shadow. Sex is unspeakable.

The usual suspects: Lawrence v Texas, official version

In this light, a tellingly ironic revelation emerged this week about the Lawrence case. The lawsuit, remember, started when Texas cops broke in on a gay pair allegedly having forbidden relations. In the New Yorker, Dahlia Lithwick reviews Dale Carpenter’s new book on the decision, and I can’t resist quoting her analysis:

The malleability of anti-gay laws is in part a function of failed legal language. “Sodomy” was, for centuries, a crime defined by its unspeakable nature. The eighteenth-century British legal commentator William Blackstone called it a crime “not fit to be named,” which takes you only so far when it comes to drafting a ban. Sodomy was codified thereafter as a “crime against nature,” without much clarity about what unspoken horrors were not to be spoken of.  …

That same unspoken horror of unnamed “unnatural” deviant conduct leads to Carpenter’s most fascinating revelation: the arresting officers in the Lawrence case never agreed on what they saw that night, and, in fact, reported seeing completely different conduct at the time. Two of the four officers who entered the apartment reported seeing two men having sex. Yet one officer reported seeing anal sex and the other remembered seeing oral sex. The other two saw no sex at all.

In fact, the two men weren’t lovers (as their defenders had claimed) and weren’t having sex. They were clothed, and sitting in separate rooms.

A law against “unspeakable” acts overturned because of an act that wasn’t described and didn’t happen; an historic advance for sexual rights, with no sex. Isn’t that a metaphor for where we stand?

P.S. Rick Santorum thinks sex is cheap

In a speech to a huge mob of pitchfork-wielding, witch-incinerating, rabid conservatives today, Rick Santorum opposed the whole idea of including contraceptives in insurance plans. Surprise!  His argument, though, wasn’t so much moral as economic:

[I]nterestingly enough, here is what they are forcing them to do—in an insurance policy, they are forcing them to pay for something that costs just a few dollars. Is that what insurance is for? The foundational idea that we have the government tells you that you have to pay for everything as a business. Things that are not really things you need insurance for, and still forcing on something that is not a critical economic need, when you have an economic distress, where you would need insurance. But forcing them even more to do it for minor expenses.

Of course, the kids you might have otherwise (or the abortions) aren’t exactly minor expenses, so this might turn out to be a bit of a false economy in the end.  Still, it reflects his sense that sex is not a “need,” or a drive, or even an impulse. It’s a cheap treat, like the mint a restaurant gives you at the end of a meal.

 

The war on contraception: Principles, compromises, and payment plans

In the nineteenth century, pr-st-t-t–n,  sometimes along with other illicit forms of s-x that couldn’t be named in print, was often referred to as “the Social Evil.”  As a way of describing our running obsession with the morality of human arousal, I much prefer this to the term “Culture Wars,” which imputes a degree of excitement to the endless sex conflict that, in its rhetorical monotony, it really doesn’t possess. Moreover, “Social Evil” is multivalent. It can mean the sex itself, or the way we think about it, or the way we try to suppress it, or the fact that we think about it at all.   I’m inclined to use it to signify the latter, but that’s neither here nor there. In any case, whenever I say “Social Evil,” think culture wars and all they contain, and let healthy images of Rick Santorum nude mud-wrestling Ellen Degeneres fill your mind.

And now that you’ve vomited: the Social Evil is back. This presidential season was all supposed to be about jobs, jobs, jobs, and suddenly it is all about sex, sex, sex. First there was the Planned Parenthood fracas.  You know about that: funding withdrawn from a major provider of mammograms because the right wing feared any medical services might somehow be infected by the proximity of abortions. Then there was furor when the Obama administration decided that employee health insurance plans offered by religious charities, hospitals, and universities had to cover contraception in the same way other employers’ would. In the middle of this, the Ninth Circuit in California dissed the opponents of same-sex marriage, holding there was no compelling reason for Proposition 8 to snatch away the right the State Supreme Court had granted. And Rick Santorum won three states on Tuesday.  The French Revolution is coming, he said, along with “the guillotine”: “if we do and follow the path of President Obama and his overt hostility to faith in America, then we are headed down that road.” Presumably the fat king and his jewel-encrusted wife will die, along with plenty of priests. (A warning to Newt Gingrich?)  The French, he went on, had a constitution that

was very similar to the American Constitution. But it was one difference. Their constitution was based on three principles. Liberty—good. Equality—good. And fraternity—brotherhood. Brother-hood. But not fatherhood.

A stiff dose of patriarchy keeps the Social Evil away.

Although pundits affect some surprise that this diversion from the Important Issue of the economy is taking place, in fact it’s not shocking at all. Culture is what Republicans talk about instead of talking about class. (They talk about race, too, but it requires more caution and so is less fun.) And culture means sex; the whole intellectual apparatus that the left-wing cultural elites try to foist on the uncorrupted masses, from nudie pictures to sweaty and shoulder-rubbing subway rides, is one giant excuse to stimulate the nether organs and jump-start nonprocreative copulation. In a year when inequality has become, against all conservative predictions, a central political issue, yelling about sex is not just a diversion for the right wing: it’s an attempt to translate an anger that most people are feeling, out of an incomprehensible language of economic justice into a vocabulary of resentment Republican leaders can understand.

The contraception battle, though, is perhaps the most revealing as far as the attitudes of the right wing go.  For those interested in the question’s legal ramifications, you can turn to David Boies (attorney and gay-marriage maven), who together with Joan Walsh explains it as “an issue of labor law, and the government’s regulation of employers (relatively minimal, compared to other countries) on issues of health, safety and non-discrimination.” The Christian Science Church may believe that modern medicine is a submission to the sinful world of materiality, but that doesn’t mean the Christian Science Monitor can refuse to cover surgery in its employees’ insurance. To make contraception a part of (near) universal health care coverage, meanwhile, is to recognize the reality that women want to have sex more often than they want to have babies. This fact is bound up with their health and well-being, as well as their autonomy. By institutionalizing the requirement, Obama has not so much promoted “broad, societal liberalization” (as Dana Goldstein wrote in the Daily Beast last summer) as brought policy into line with what’s already taken place.

This case persuades plenty of Catholics, but not the hierarchy. Catholics for Choice offers up a useful graphic: 98% of sexually active Catholic women use contraception banned by the Church.  (I like the two stylized bishops to the right, representing the other 2%; at first I thought they were nuclear warheads.)  It may then seem self-defeating that, as the New York Times points out, the US Catholic hierarchy has spent seven months preparing for this fight. But:

The speed and passion behind the bishops’ response reflects their growing sense of siege, and their belief that the space the Catholic church once occupied in American society and the deference it was given are gradually being curtailed by an increasingly secular culture.

The conflict puts not just the White House, but also the bishops to the test. Will their flock follow their lead? And are they sufficiently powerful, now that they have joined forces with evangelicals and other religious conservatives, to outmuscle the women’s groups, public health advocates and liberal religious leaders who argue that the real issue is contraceptive coverage for all women, and that the Obama administration was right?

The desire of most women to control their own bodies (along with the desire of some priests to control the bodies of little boys) has caused a catastrophic collapse in the prestige and influence of the American Catholic Church.  Trying to move the conflict to the grounds of “religious liberty” is in fact a theatrical bid to regain that power, and the loyalties of individual believers. In the process, though, the church — and the evangelicals and Republican politicians who are supporting them — show that, fifty years after the Pill was introduced, they are still unreconciled to birth control as a woman’s freedom and decision. The Catholic bishops made this clear this week. Their head lawyer said:

“There has been a lot of talk in the last couple days about compromise, but it sounds to us like a way to turn down the heat, to placate people without doing anything in particular … We’re not going to do anything until this is fixed.” That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether, he said, not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers. He cited the problem that would create for “good Catholic business people who can’t in good conscience cooperate with this.” “If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I’d be covered by the mandate.”

No covered birth control for anybody! Fast-food cooks breeding compulsorily the way God wanted! Santorum, a Catholic and an exceptionally candid politician, repeats at every opportunity that while “many of the Christian faith have said, well that’s okay, I mean y’know, contraception is okay: It is not okay.” But even evangelicals, who lack the Papal devotion to the dignity of the unconjoined egg and sperm, regard contraception with horror: feminism and the sexual revolution, modernity’s whole Gomorrah-bound slouch, emerged in their view from birth control’s defanging of of a principal control on sex. The war on a small provision in health-insurance policy is a war on the social acceptability of contraception — and on its recognition as a right in law.

Santorum on how birth control is bad for women

It’s in this light that one should judge the “accomodation” Obama announced today.   It lets religious organizations refuse to include birth control coverage in their employee insurance plans. But in that case, the insurers themselves must offer contraception coverage to workers directly, and cover the cost themselves. Women won’t lose contraceptive care. It’s just that their employers won’t have to pay for it.

The new policy has already stimulated wonky debate. Catholics for Choice argues that “this compromise relies on insurance companies doing the right thing.” In fact, even before Obama’s announcement, Matthew Yglesias laid out why the insurance companies will do just that:

While birth control costs more than nothing, it costs less than an abortion and much less than having a baby. From a social point of view, unless we’re not going to subsidize consumption of health care services at all (which would be a really drastic change from the status quo) then it makes a ton of sense to heavily subsidize contraceptives. … [J]ust on the dollars and cents subsidizing birth control is a no-brainer. The unfortunate thing is that under the American setup the subsidies tend to be passed through the employer, which has set the stage for this controversy.

Obama, of course, just took the subsidy cost away from the (religious) employer and landed it on the insurer. But by Yglesias’s argument, the insurers should be happy about this; the contraception costs are less onerous than the alternatives.  They might even save money, and the premiums the employers pay for other things may go down. (Others are less sure. Sarah Kliff at the Washington Post contends that somebody’s premiums will have to go up. But, according to the Guttmacher Institute, it adds up to less than $22.00 per premium to put contraception in an insurance plan. Even if the costs for a small number of religious-institution employees get spread around among the much larger number of employees who work elsewhere, the increase would hardly be crippling.)

The more interesting thing is the way Obama is grasping the moral high ground. Jonathan Cohn notes that while the US Catholic bishops are likely to reject the “accomodation,” the Catholic Health Association immediately endorsed it. (The CHA similarly split with the men in dresses in supporting Obama’s health care reform bill.)

This difference of opinion is not surprising. As a veteran health care operative once pointed out to me, health care is a reality for the nuns who run the hospitals. For the bishops, it’s more of an abstraction. And so while the former think long and hard about how to improve access to care, for the sake of their institutions as well as their patients, the bishops tend to focus more on other imperatives, like the church’s declaration that contraception is a sin.

But the right wing continues to roar, and to make it clear they want everybody exempted from the mandate to provide contraception. Four conservatives, including a former Vatican Ambassador to the U.S., condemned the administration’s

insistence that religious employers, be they institutions or individuals, provide insurance that covered services they regard as gravely immoral and unjust.  Under the new rule, the government still coerces religious institutions and individuals to purchase insurance policies that include the very same services. [emphasis added]

A Nebraska Congressman vowed to defend not just the bishops, but Taco Bell to the death: “Congress should protect the religious liberty and conscience rights of every American who objects to being forced by the strongarm of government to pay for services to which she or he has deeply-held objections.” Of course, once you let employers opt out of any coverage to which they can muster a moral objection, you’ve pretty much ensured that thousands will discover their deep religious discomfort with the extra $22 on the premium. And you’ve turned health coverage into Swiss cheese. Different holes will riddle each job’s insurance plan. No worker will have a right to much of anything.

American women are unlikely to stand for the all-out war on birth control that the bishops and their allies have opened. And even people who dislike Obamacare, and have an workplace-based insurance plan that suits them well enough, won’t want their health care infinitely exposed to a hirer’s moral vagaries. As Amanda Morcotte at Slate interprets the administration’s strategy, Obama’s been

letting Republicans work themselves into a frenzy of anti-contraception rhetoric, all thinly disguised as concern for religious liberty, and then created a compromise that addressed their purported concerns but without actually reducing women’s access to contraception, which is what this has always been about. … With the fig leaf of religious liberty removed, Republicans are in a bad situation. They can either drop this and slink away knowing they’ve been punked, or they can double down. But in order to do so, they’ll have to be more blatantly anti-contraception, a politically toxic move in a country where 99% of women have used contraception.

Last summer, a spokesman for the bishops said:  “We consider [birth control] an elective drug … Married women can practice periodic abstinence. Other women can abstain altogether. Not having sex doesn’t make you sick.” That’s their vision for women’s health (and sanity). Obama is betting that most of a modern country will resoundingly reject it.   Let’s hope he’s right.