In Response to Steven Landsburg (Part Two)

Our second guest response to Steven Landsburg’s comments and the larger controversy surrounding Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke and political commentator Rush Limbaugh comes from Terry Platt, Professor of Biology, Biochemistry, and Biophysics, University of Rochester. Professor Platt is the faculty Co-Director of the Center for Workshop Education and a Faculty Associate to the Susan B. Anthony Institute.

It is a pity that both Rush Limbaugh and Steven Landsburg argue mainly with their primal instincts rather than their brains. The few facts they present are either tangentially irrelevant or contextually misleading, and their true colors are revealed by their desire to see sex videos of the target of their attacks.

1.  Limbaugh, generally ignorant about many issues he addresses, seems to believe that having more sex requires a greater number of birth control pills.  It is surprising that Landsburg, an economist, appears to misunderstand the function of “insurance”, whereby no member of the insured group ever expects to use all the benefits offered by the coverage.  By design, every participant here agrees to contribute to the health care of others, in exchange for coverage of his/her potential requirements in the designated category.  Women are simply requesting gender parity:  as Viagra is covered for males, so should birth control be covered for females. There would be a huge outcry if Viagra were denied to males because the pill was denied to women.

2.  Both males appear selectively illiterate, unable to read the examples of the many medical conditions in women (unrelated to avoiding pregnancy) for which the standard of care is providing birth control pills.   Beyond that, what is the logical difference between women’s birth control, which serves to prevent an unwanted condition (just as applying sunscreen is a standard of care in preventing skin cancer), and men’s “need” for Viagra (which should be carnally more opprobrious, as the absence of Viagra may be frustrating but is not medically damaging, except to the psyches of the users)?

3.  The religious arguments are also tortuously twisted, as offering a service does not obligate any subscriber to actually use it – it is not “religious freedom” to force others to knuckle under to your religious beliefs.  In fact, the vehement objections of the religious non-profit organizations to offering “birth control” seems oxymoronic, since if their congregations adhere to admonitions that birth control contravenes church teachings, then it is a non-expense; nobody will buy them and a great amount of money (that might have been spent providing birth control) will be saved! This seems not to be the case, and religious leaders appear ostrich-like in not acknowledging that in the United States, over 90% of their female followers have actually used birth control despite church teachings.  Perhaps they should require that all women in their congregations have blood tests to determine whether they are morally pure in this regard?  Moreover, in the employment arena, if even one woman working for the affected church-run institutions desires birth control, denying that access is a direct infringement of her own rights.

4.  I know of none who do not wish a decrease in the number of performed abortions. Yet those most fervent in the righteous outcry against abortion seek to deny women the very approach that would have the largest effect, namely access to family planning education and birth control methods.  This is like expecting the number of flat tires to diminish by driving more carefully, while forbidding attempts to reduce the number of tire-puncturing hazards on the road.

5.  At the heart of this discussion is the subjugation of women as second-class citizens, revolving around the privacy issue that women (like men) should have control over their reproductive choices and are entitled to physician-patient confidentiality.  It is critical to recognize that 50% of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, and the societal cost savings of reducing this number is immensely greater than the cost of providing the inexpensive pill.  Finally, many if not most men also rejoice at the opportunity for women to control their own reproductive freedom.

In continuing these discussions, all parties should endeavor to use evidence-based arguments and decision-making.  I applaud President Seligman’s and Professor Scott’s calls to eliminate slanderous name-calling and unsupported statements from this discourse: it serves no one well.


About Kaitlin Legg

Former Program Assistant at the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Rochester.
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3 Responses to In Response to Steven Landsburg (Part Two)

  1. Women are simply requesting gender parity: as Viagra is covered for males, so should birth control be covered for females.

    I’d have said it this way: “As the government does not dictate that Viagra either should or should not be covered, so the government should not dictate that birth control either should or should not be covered”.

    My insurance covers Viagra. I would prefer that it didn’t. But I do not think my preference in this matter justifies a government mandate against Viagra coverage. Sandra Fluke’s insurance doesn’t cover birth control. She would prefer that it did. But I do not think her preference in this matter justifies a government mandate in favor of birth control coverage.

    So if your Viagra analogy is meant to address the question “Should the government dictate the terms of insurance policies?”, then it fails badly, because the government in fact does *not* (as far as I know — I could be wrong about this) dictate the terms of insurance policies re Viagra, so you can hardly use that as an argument for why the government *should* dictate the terms of insurance policies re birth control.

    Now there are of course arguments for mandated birth control that go *beyond* demands that the government enforce someone’s personal preferences, and although Sandra Fluke didn’t bother to make any of those arguments, we should of course take them seriously. But I don’t see how any of those arguments supports a Viagra analogy. For example, you might want to argue that birth control is desirable because it slows population growth (though of course you’d have to supplement this with an argument that population growth is currently too rapid), and therefore should be mandated. But this won’t work as an argument for mandating Viagra; if anything, it might be an argument for mandating *no* coverage of Viagra.

    Conclusion: If your argument is based entirely on demands that the government enforce someone’s personal preferences, then the Viagra argument works against you (because the Viagra precedent is that the government stays out of these choices). If your argument is based on, say, issues of population growth, then any argument for mandating birth control is a demand for *banning* Viagra, and vice versa.

    In no case does the Viagra analogy seem to remotely support the conclusions you seem to want to draw. What am I missing?

  2. Michael S says:

    I think what Terry is alluding to is the disparity regarding the collective treatment of men and women by insurance companies and pervasive social biases. If women are half of the citizens of the United States, shouldn’t there be an equal amount of insurance plans offering Birth Control coverage as there are Viagra coverage, presuming the demand and price are equal [both of which, are in fact in favor of birth control in comparison to viagara]? However, it seems that far more insurance plans cover a ‘sexually permissive’ prescription for men than for women. This of course is a question of social attitude, but a purely free-market analysis falls short in its assumption that people of all demographics are treated equally under the supervision of social norm. Women’s voices and opinions have been demonstrated, time and again, to be perpetually devalued in the public sphere. If our society cannot accommodate the prejudice of the insurance industry, shouldn’t we expect our government to be responsible to?

  3. hudibras says:

    “Women’s voices and opinions have been demonstrated, time and again, to be perpetually devalued in the public sphere.”

    That is a sweeping and tendentious over-generalisation, and that demonstration does not exist. Moreover, women do not speak with one voice. I can assure you that many women have Tory political and moral values.

    Here’s how I see it. Women vote in large numbers. Over the past 10-15 years, the percentage of women who eventually graduate from college exceeds the percentage of men. The fraction of legislators who are women has gradually risen over time. I will not reveal my profession, walk of life and nationality here, but it has been very much my impression that a fear of offending women and feminist correctness pervades my corner of contemporary life.

    “It is critical to recognize that 50% of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned.”
    This is not a fact, because there is no operational meaning of the term “unplanned pregnancy.” “Unplanned” refers to an unverifiable mental state. Nor do I see how “unplanned pregnancies” (in the colloquial sense) are necessarily a social evil. Many of the twists and turns of my life were in no way “intended” or “planned,” but that fact in no way rules out my being thankful for quite a few of those twists and turns.

    Back to the topic at hand. An employer who offers health insurance to his employees has the right to craft that insurance to suit her preferences, just as an employer is free to offer any wage for any job. A job that does not offer enough pay attracts no applicants. Likewise, if an employee does not like the health insurance that a particular employer offers, she is free to change jobs. Health insurers should make it easier for someone to obtain additional coverage in exchange for a higher premium, with the employer being none the wiser. An employee should also be given the option of waving coverage of contraception when enrolling in a new health care plan, in exchange for a lower copayment. I have no difficulty with employers offering health plans that do not cover abortion and contraception. Those who value such coverage should not work for such employers.

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