The Scarlet 'C'

No one, except perhaps Bill O'Reilly, is willing to defend Rush Limbaugh's latest attempt at character assassination. Obviously, Limbaugh went too far in calling a Georgetown student a "slut" and a "prostitute" for asserting that health insurance for women should include coverage of birth control. Okay. But a growing number of conservatives, including Rick Santorum, are not shying away from claiming that contraception, even within marriage, is "dangerous" and some kind of moral turpitude. Contraception has suddenly become the 21st century equivalent of the "scarlet letter."

But why? Why the sudden assault on contraception? It would be nice to think that the attackers were motivated by concerns about the deficit or religious objections to abortion, but reducing support for family planning only increases government spending and boosts the number of pregnancies that are ultimately terminated.

Nor is it necessarily the teachings of the Catholic Church. Catholic orthodoxy may be opposed to modern methods of birth control, but that's nothing new, and large numbers of Catholic women have rejected, and continue to reject, the teachings of the Church on this matter.

Perhaps it's a latter day resurgence of our Puritan heritage. Many of the recent attacks on contraception, including Limbaugh's, are certainly delivered with moralistic zeal. When I read Santorum's musings about Satan and the United States, I feel like I am listening to "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," the famous 17th century sermon by Jonathan Edwards.

We should not sit in judgment on those who, because of religious conviction, choose not to use a modern method of birth control. It is their right. But in a tolerant and pluralistic society they should not sit in political judgment on those who choose to use modern method of birth control, whether it is to prevent an unintended pregnancy or some other medically valid purpose, including control of menstruation.

What's troubling to me as a man, and I suspect to most women, is that all the vitriol and moralistic zeal in this debate is being focused on women, not men. When the puritanical axe falls, rhetorically or otherwise, it always seems to fall on women. In the English language there is no male equivalent to the word "slut." Gender-specific pejoratives almost always apply to women, not men. If you want to accuse a man of selling sexual favors, you have to say "male prostitute." If you simply call someone a "prostitute," as Limbaugh did, the automatic assumption is that the person in question is a woman.

The ferocity of the public's reaction to Limbaugh's verbal assault on Sandra Fluke will probably temper the political rhetoric and dissuade others from attacking the character of women on this issue. I'm relieved that the rhetorical bashing of women will become less political acceptable, but my concerns go deeper than Limbaugh's rhetoric, as reprehensible as that is.

Far more damaging than the rhetorical assault is the practical effect of what social conservatives are trying to achieve by restricting access to family planning services and information. The chainsaw logic that leads social conservatives to outlaw or limit access to various forms of contraceptives, including emergency contraception, has real world consequences: more unintended pregnancies, more pregnancy-related complications, and, ultimately, more abortions. Similarly, eliminating or slashing government support for family planning clinics will make it more difficult for women to get screened for breast and cervical cancer. Low-income women, in particular, rely upon family planning clinics for basic health services. There's a reason why Democrats are calling the escalating attacks on Title X and contraception a "war on women." That's what it is.

If all we get out of the latest Limbaugh firestorm is that it is not appropriate to call women sluts, prostitutes, or any of the other pejoratives commonly heaped on women, then we are missing the larger point: women suffer when their reproductive health and rights are abridged.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: it's time for men to speak out against this escalating war on women. Real men--and I do not include Rush Limbaugh in that number--care about women and their reproductive health.