Republican politicians are treading into murky (read: sexist) waters in the contraception debate. Earlier today, in protest of House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa's refusal to allow women onto a panel of witnesses at the hearing on the White House mandate to require employers and insurers to provide contraception coverage, Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) walked out, garnering a significant amount of media attention and setting off an ensuing furor among women and men. Why no women? Issa said, “the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception but instead about the Administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience."
Currently under the Obama plan, in cases in which religious groups are involved, contraception coverage will be offered to women by their employers’ insurance companies directly, so that religious employers who oppose contraception don't have to be involved with that nasty business. What Issa means is that the hearing is about whether requiring insurers to cover birth control violates the religious freedom of people who don't believe that birth control should, essentially, exist. The people on his panel, then, were men. Religious men. (Two women appeared on a second panel at the hearing. Both spoke against contraception.)
But back to Issa's statement: How do you take "reproductive rights and contraception" out of a conversation about birth control? You can't. You might try to ignore those parts of the conversation because you want to get a specific answer, for a specific purpose. And allowing women on a panel to talk about how and why they need birth control -- and how and why they need insurers to pay for it -- detracts from that mission.
In tackier, more sensational headlines, Rick Santorum pal Foster Friess announced on MSNBC today that back in the old days the "gals" used to just put some Bayer Aspirin between their knees as a handy (and cheap!) contraception method, thereby winning him "most moronic statement of the day." But less attention was paid to how Friess went on to further belittle the issue of birth control, insinuating that all this focus on stupid lady crap when there are more important issues at stake (like wars), is the marking of a randy, sex-obsessed culture:
Here we have millions of our fellow Americans unemployed, we have jihadist camps being set up in Latin America, which Rick has been warning about, and people seem to be so preoccupied with sex. I think it says something about our culture. We maybe need a massive therapy session so we can concentrate on what the real issues are.
Rush Limbaugh comes down on this side, with a bit more of a conspiracy angle, saying Democrats "ginned up" the contraception debate to divide the GOP and distract from the real issues.
But what are the real issues? Sex, and everything related to it -- you could argue that very little is not related to sex in some way -- surely, is one of them. Surely Friess knows that. (We dare say his words have the confessional mark of "methinks the man doth protest too much.")
Friess, Limbaugh, and Issa, each in different ways, are trying to desexualize and downplay the importance of an issue that is, at its core, about not only sex but also men and women, power, religion, socioeconomics, relationships, healthcare, equal rights, and, not to speak too broadly, but pretty much our entire global future. We'll throw Issa a bone: Fine, this particular hearing is also about freedom of religion and conscience -- things that women have opinions on just as much as men do, just like men should care about birth control just as much as women do. But, two facts: Men don't actually get pregnant, and we have nothing to gain from a one-sided conversation about an issue that impacts us all. It's doubly insulting when women, who have been dealing with birth control on their own for years, are left out of the conversation or added as an afterthought. Come on, politicians. We're all grown ups here. If you feel the need to giggle behind your hand when someone mentions sex, you should excuse yourself from the table. Didn't we all take health class back in high school? (As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said today, “What else do you need to know about the subject? I may, I may at some point be moved to explain biology to my colleagues.”)
The simple answer of why men are dominating the conversation on birth control is that, regardless of strides made, men continue to largely dominate the conversation in politics. The more complicated answer is that the men who are dominating the conversation on birth control -- and you can count Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Florida Senator Marco Rubio among those who've come out against the White House contraception plan -- are deeply afraid of losing the conservative vote, and, it seems, conservatives continue to be deeply afraid of women having free and equal control over their own bodies and all that follows from that. Like having sex. Creating fewer unwanted children. And women taking care of themselves. What a sin.