Monday, July 7, 2014

Margaret Sanger, we need you again

"The past isn't dead," William Faulkner wrote, famously, in 1951. "It isn't even past." That's true for some groups more than others. Religious fanatics keep trying to drive women back into the past and, perhaps because no one takes them seriously except the Supreme Court, their successes don't seem to cause much distress.  

     Timing is everything, in book publishing as in everything else. 
     OK, maybe more so in book publishing. 
     So I do not want to suggest that by not being published until October,  The Birth of the Pill by Chicago writer Jonathan Eig will be in any sense “late.” 
     His previous books — about Lou Gehrig, about Al Capone — were excellent and best-sellers, and this next one is excellent and will be a best-seller, too, or at least should be.                 That said, it’s a shame it’s not available right now—I read an advance copy—because to read of the arduous struggle of American women to gain access to contraception at the precise moment when the U.S. Supreme Court is rolling back those hard-won rights, well let me tell you, it’s special. A chilling kind of privilege. 
     It’s like reading Upton Sinclair’s stomach-turning meatpacking novel The Jungle if the government were in the process of lowering food inspection standards. It’s like reading The Shining at the Stanley Hotel.
     Yes, that’s overstating the case. The Supreme Court did not say all women lose access to contraception, just women working for Hobby Lobby and, on Thursday, Wheaton College.     
     And only if they want it covered in their medical plans. They’re still free to buy it themselves, for now, assuming their pharmacists don’t balk, which is next.
     The ruling, in case you’ve been asleep, says the family owners of Hobby Lobby, because of their “sincere” religious convictions against contraception, can opt out of the federal Affordable Care Act. The Wheaton College ruling suggests even signing a form seeking an exemption is asking too much. This is not through any constitutional reading but due to the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a bill designed to help faithful sorts take their ball and go home whenever it pleases them. 
       People who think that is a good thing point out that nobody is forced to work at Hobby Lobby. True, but that is like saying it would be OK for Holiday Inn to ban blacks because they can stay other places. What if every business took this path and tried to tailor-fit the law to suit the religious whims of owners? If the court respects the sincere belief that sex is for procreation only and women who insist on having protected sex are whores who shouldn't be served by the company medical plan — the Hobby Lobby position, plainly stated — why shouldn't sincere religious belief in barring blacks or literally anything else not have equal weight under the law? A big book, the Bible is.
     Eig's book starts with Margaret Sanger, the pioneering advocate for women's reproductive rights, kick-starting birth control pill research in 1950, then backtracks to how women were treated when she began, around World War I. Maybe we've forgotten: One hundred years ago it was illegal to send information about contraception through the mail, forget the contraception itself. Not "illegal" as in one of those laws that sat on the books and nobody enforced. Illegal as in your pamphlets would be seized by postal authorities and you'd go to prison.
     Sanger opened the first clinic for birth control in New York in 1916, helping women desperate to get off the maternal treadmill. Shortly thereafter she was arrested for breaking the law: New York was one of 30 states that barred all contraception.
      I truly believe, if women of today understood how their grandmothers lived — baby machines under the thumb of men and religious men at that — if they had any sense of what life for them was like even 50 years ago, the babies they were forced to have, their constricted life choices, they would fall upon Hobby Lobby with a howl and tear it down brick by brick rather than let them prod our nation back toward that world.
     But they don't know. We're crazy about liberty, and miss, as the Supreme Court did, that here we're talking about the liberty of rich business owners and smug college deans to constrain the ability of minimum-wage clerks and struggling sophomores to run their lives. The Supreme Court gives that a kiss of approval and we shrug and sail into summer.
     No one's religion is violated by participating in the Affordable Care Act. As Eig points out, "There is no mention of contraception in the Bible," and the Roman Catholic Church had no official position on birth control until 1930. What you have is a divide, between those who want to live and let live under neutral civic laws and those who want to shanghai those laws to drag us all back to Christian theocracy, assuming we ever left.
     I should tell Eig I'm sorry for jumping the gun on his book. I promise I'll leap on the bandwagon come fall, if there's room. Alas, it'll be even more timely then, as women's rights keep sliding backward into history.


  1. About 18 months ago, the Searle Research Building on Niles Ave. in Skokie was torn down.
    I think this is where the original pill, Enovid, was created.

  2. It seems that Hobby Lobby invests in companies that produce the objectionable birth control. How sincere could their convictions be? But profits nullify hypocrisy, right? Pretty sure that's in the Bible.

  3. Thanks for lending your protest to those that would say this is no big deal. I disagree that Hobby Lobby should be the target for dismantling, though I certainly will never spend a dime there. You can't eliminate the loathsome. What should be dismantled brick by brick is the supreme court which says that the loathsome is lawful, and that a corporation's religious freedom is more important than a woman's health.

    1. I think what they said was, a corporations religious freedom, is more important than your freedom from religion.

  4. Looking into the history of religious opposition to contraception, one finds no scriptural prohibitions but various statements by"Church Fathers" claiming it to be a sin. It probably made social sense when children were needed to work the fields and support you in your old age and high child mortality posed difficulties in that respect. But them days have been over for a long time. Most Christian mainstream denominations have moved away from it, and a crack in the dike of Catholic teaching really appeared during the 1930's when it began to be conceded that sex for reasons other than procreation might not be sinful as long as "artificial" means of contraception were not used. I like what H.L. Menkin wrote when use of the "rhythm method" was approved. "It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics or chemistry." Of course, the Hobby Lobby case was not about contraception per se but a belief, usnupported by the scientific community, about some methods being abortificants.

    1. Thomas Evans,

      That's a wonderful Mencken quote.

      "Of course, the Hobby Lobby case was not about contraception per se..." Well, up until the next day, that is. "The Supreme Court on Tuesday confirmed that its decision a day earlier extending religious rights to closely held corporations applies broadly to the contraceptive coverage requirement in the new health care law, not just the handful of methods the justices considered in their ruling.
      The justices did not comment in leaving in place lower court rulings in favor of businesses that object to covering all 20 methods of government-approved contraception."

  5. Declining to pay for something is not the same as blocking access to it

    1. They're blocking their employees from using the employees' own benefits.

  6. By that logic, because my employer doesn't buy my lunch, they are blocking my access to food. Both contraceptives and sandwiches are widely available at reasonable prices in stores everywhere.

    1. Health care. The Congress has instituted a system of health care, which Hobby Lobby is trying to shield its employees from fully enjoying. It's like paying them, but stipulating what the money can be used for.

    2. It's not like paying them.Wages are a voluntary exchange between the employee and the employer. In Obamacare, Congress has mandated that one class of citizens (employers )*must* pay for a certain specified good for another class of citizens (employees). IMO that is, in itself, unconstitutional, leaving aside the question of religious freedom.

    3. Only in the mad world of the far right. Once upon a time, the government requires things of its citizens -- it had a draft, and could call you into the army. Then the near-treasonous decided that any requirement of government impinged upon the anarchy they prefer, perhaps so their firearms will finally be needed. The fact that you don't see it doesn't mean it isn't plain to be seen.

  7. I rather live in a pluralistic society where various religious denominations live in a healthy tension with the secular authorities. I believe Martin Luther King would agree. See ON LIBERTY by John Stuart Mill.

    A separation of church and state is exactly what we have here. The state is accommodating the religious beliefs of the employer. This was not the banning of contraceptives dealt with in Griswold.

    If liberty matters -- then we have to tolerate and legally accommodate views with which we disagree. That is why I believe Lawrence v. Texas -- striking down anti-sodomy laws -- was correctly decided. We all find Nazis marching in Skokie and flag burning loathsome – but we must tolerate it in the name of free speech.

    The banning of blacks from a business establishment is not an apt analogy since
    it involves excluding an entire person. That is more serious. The Hobby Horse Case discriminates only against a particular medicine which can easily be gotten elsewhere. Has anyone ever used the U.S. Post Office?

    This liberal/progressive “war on women” trope merely spreads heat and no light. It is merely used to “gin –up” otherwise apathetic or disheartened liberals/progressives. That is ignoble.


    1. "discriminates only against a particular medicine"

      And I bet the medicine doesn't even care! You could probably even call the medicine "Redskin" and it wouldn't mind. I've become aware that corporations are people, of course, but discrimination against inanimate objects is new to me. ; ) No, the discrimination is against the WOMEN who would like this medicine, along with all the other medicines that the Hobby Lobby owners deign to allow them insurance for. You can get flu shots all kinds of places -- cheaply, too -- but insurance pays for those. Should it not? I'm sure we'll be seeing what creative exemptions will be sought in the future, based on this precedent.

      By the way, Jerry, if you want people to know it's your comment, you can pick "Name/URL" under the "select profile" list, put your name and just leave URL blank...

  8. Ross Douthat wrote a column in the NY TImes Sunday about how many things liberals would otherwise embrace about Hobby Lobby. Pays its lowest skilled workers $15/hour, raised wages during the recession, gives 10% of its profits to charity, gives all workers Sundays off. Sounds pretty sincere to me. What's more puzzling is why, with a Democratic administration in office since 2008, the FDA hasn't approved Plan B/RU-486 for OTC:

  9. Jakash:

    Thanks for the reply.

    Let’s see if we can talk to one another rather than past one another.

    I have nothing against non-aborticient contraceptives.

    A restaurant that plays nothing but Sinatra purposely discriminates against the “younger set.”
    I concede that the Hobby Horse folk discriminate against some women by not giving them everything they want. But not giving them everything they want is not the same as saying “women need not apply” or “no women allowed.” That is what I meant by “discriminates only against a particular medicine.” I think you knew that. Thus your initial remark was a cheap shot.

    As you conceded on the Zorn blog – I am a right of center “moderate.” If this was Ireland or Poland – where it is either the Roman Catholic Church or the State – then I would side more with you. But in the U.S. we have a vast diversity of religious and secular beliefs.

    I simply see little problem with letting liberty and diversity flourish. Note that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was almost unanimously passed by Congress and signed into law by Bill Clinton. The original impetus for the Act was to allow some American Indians to engage in religious rituals using peyote. Surely you are not asserting that the American Indians are entitled to their religious liberties but some white Christians are not?


    1. I doubt that Mr. Steinberg will welcome us having a discussion about this on his blog, so I'll leave it at this. I think a Native American PERSON should be allowed to exercise his right to engage in religious rituals using peyote if he so desires, and so long as it doesn't adversely affect others. I think that a Christian PERSON should be allowed to refuse to use contraception, without doubt. I don't think that a CORPORATION run by Christians should be able to use the beliefs of its owners to opt out of providing insurance for legal methods of contraception to whatever workers it employs that don't share those beliefs. In my mind, there's a pretty clear distinction between providing insurance and providing contraception, and an even clearer one between providing insurance and USING contraception. As I noted, I understand that certain members of this Court think that corporations are people and money is speech. I'm not required to agree with them on the internet...

      And my initial remark was a JOKE, not a cheap shot. That's why I put the ; ) there!

    2. Jakash:

      I welcome all discussion that is halfway civil and doesn't involve wildly snide comments about the author of the blog. Other than that, go to it.


    3. Thanks Ns,
      For being a voice on all this.
      Aside to point, are the trains running on time? METRA shuts down in this kinda heat.


  10. Jakash:

    Thanks again for a civil post directed to me.

    In order to talk to you rather than past you – I will concede that a person running a business – serving the public and employing others -- should have fewer liberties in running that business than a person not so engaged. That is why I am OK with banning “women not allowed” or “women need not apply” policies.

    On the other hand – lawyers know many ways to skin a cat. Thus they know many ways to hobble free speech and other liberties without employing outright bans.

    To say that people cannot join together in organized groups to express their liberties – would be one type of hobble. To say that each member of the group is liable for all the debts the organized group incurs would similarly dissuade people from joining an organized effort. The main benefit of incorporation is limited liability of it shareholders.

    That is why the S. Ct. held:

    “”... Held: As applied to closely held corporations, the HHS regulations imposing the contraceptive mandate violate RFRA.

    (a) RFRA applies to regulations that govern the activities of closely held for-profit corporations like Conestoga, Hobby Lobby, and Mardel.

    (1) HHS argues that the companies cannot sue because they are for-profit corporations, and that the owners cannot sue because the regulations apply only to the companies, but that would leave merchants with a difficult choice: give up the right to seek judicial protection of their religious liberty or forgo the benefits of operating as corporations. RFRA’s text shows that Congress designed the statute to provide very broad protection for religious liberty and did not intend to put merchants to such a choice. It employed the familiar legal fiction of including corporations within RFRA’s definition of “persons,”but the purpose of extending rights to corporations is to protect the rights of people associated with the corporation, including shareholders, officers, and employees. Protecting the free-exercise rights of closely held corporations thus protects the religious liberty of the humans who own and control them.””

    Jakash – I am sure you can come up with hypotheticals where you and I agree that the general law should prevail over sincere religious beliefs. I believe that these should be handled separately as they occurred.

    Thus I simply draw the line closer to the side of liberty and diversity than you.


    1. Thanks, Neil. If only I *wanted* to have the discussion. ; )


      Yes, 5 members of the Court agreed that the RFRA provided "very broad protection for religious liberty" such that Hobby Lobby won the case. As you know, 4 members, including the 3 justices who are women, were "persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose." They were also "mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce," some of which we are reading about with each passing day. I'm in no position to argue the law with a fine lawyer such as yourself, but, to me, this came down to politics, as Supreme Court decisions often seem to. This was no 9-0 decision, like some others, which might have indicated a much clearer legal consensus. Your "side" won. I realize that. You may consider it a matter of drawing "the line closer to the side of liberty and diversity than" I do. I consider it a matter of 5 Catholic men, who happen to form the majority in this case, deciding that a company shouldn't have to provide insurance for birth control for its women employees, if the Christian owners don't like the idea. Please note that, as I referenced at 10:36, this is not meant to apply only to the methods that Hobby Lobby found problematic, but even the kinds that Hobby Lobby provided in its insurance plan willingly already, but which are of concern to Catholic employers.

    2. Is there a test to ensure that 3 members of the court r womyn and not gendered-neutral? Perhaps the clerks write the opinions, the judges sign them, and the other clerks stamp them for the scribes to write on. And on in their busy schedules.

      --A law student at DePaul's rank Law College.
      Class of 2016, future court officer.

    3. "r womyn"?
      I can't wait to see what a federal judge will do to you if you filed a brief with that grammar & linguistic atrocity.

  11. No joke, always good to see Chicago's Finest.

    (future pics could display the reality that is Chicago's diverse and
    honorable law enforcement officers)

    Murphy family

    1. The McTavishes of Avalon Park like/this comment.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.