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By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The administrators of Providence College, where I teach, have floated the suggestion that we move toward a self-insurance plan.  They began to consider this idea before the HHS mandate requiring all men everywhere to come to the aid of their country and pony up money for other people’s contraceptive pills and poisons.

That has spurred a spirited exchange of letters in our professorial mailboxes. The theologians at our school are pretty solid, top to bottom, and are joined in the good fight by a fair number of colleagues in philosophy, English, and history, along with comrades scattered across the other disciplines. The discussion turned quickly toward the issue of contraception, and who should pay for it. Whence I have come to some conclusions.

People who are perfectly capable of thinking, or at least of galumphing through an argument without serious injury, cannot or will not think about this. They do not trouble to argue; they react, they cry out, they call names. 

I mentioned that contraception is not medical at all, because it does not medicate. It does not cure an illness; it does not restore function to an injured organ or limb; it does not protect against casual infection; it does not soothe pain. The problem, as far as contraceptors are concerned, is not that their organs aren’t working properly, but that they are, and they wish they weren’t. 

The “solution” is to thwart the natural function, as you would do if you took a Gluttony Pill designed to let you eat ten thousand calories a day, Trimalchio-style, and not gain a pound. I mentioned, while I was at it, that if anything the Pill is anti-medical, because it pumps into the woman’s body a class-one carcinogen, estrogen. 

That raises the woman’s chance of developing breast cancer by 25 percent, if you believe the more modest estimates, and since more than 13 percent of American women will develop that disease, we’re talking about a huge increase in absolute numbers. If half of all such women will have used the Pill extensively, we’d see an additional 2.5 million cases of breast cancer.

The science is well documented and easy to find. What was the response? None worthy the name. Suggest that the messenger is stupid, and ignore the message. A large coterie of female professors grew indignant, saying that they resented being “forced” to abide by a Church whereof they were not members. And I wondered, “Have they lost the capacity to understand the meaning of simple words?”


      Gargantua by Gustave Doré, 1873

They are the ones attempting to compel – to require people like me to defray the cost of their pills. When I demur, they cry foul. If I should say, “No, I will not pay for your subscription to Cosmopolitan,” or, “No, I will not shell out two dollars for your Big Mac,” I am not thereby “forcing” them to do anything – to read magazines written for decent people, or to eat real food. They can read their own tawdry rag and buy their own slop while they’re at it.

Somebody raised the false issue of the prescription of estrogen for legitimate medical reasons. Of course, the Church has nothing against such prescriptions. I pointed out that the Church does not oppose digitalis, so long as you use it to settle a heart attack and not to cause one. That comment did not amuse.

What was most striking, though, was the complete absence of any consideration of the common good. And this, too, from people who consider themselves “liberal,” usually but not always with no more justification than that they vote for statists and swim along with the swelling current of the media mundi. We’re not – usually – talking about people who rub elbows with laborers, who know what it’s like to go down a mine shaft, who visit prisons, or who give a passing thought to the devastation of the families of the poor and the working class. 

The same people would be quick to point out that it might be morally permissible to own a handgun, but that we should prohibit it anyway, sweeping aside the Second Amendment as old lingo, and appealing to the common good. I don’t think that such a prohibition would serve the common good, but I’m willing to entertain the possibility. That issue must be decided on moral and prudential grounds, calling into play questions regarding the morality of ownership and the particular situation in which we find ourselves.

But surely anything that so alters the relations between the sexes as the Pill does, and that severs the bond between sexual gratification and the prospect of children, must have profound implications for the common good. Nor is estrogen something you can grow in your backyard, like a coca plant. It has to be manufactured by a large pharmaceutical company. Unless we are to lie supine before the onslaught of every “newn’improved” tool or foodstuff or poison, we must ask, “Does this support or does it undermine the common good?”

And that question many of my colleagues were unwilling not only to address but even to admit. To hell with the common good, so long as I can have my – and we can fill in the blank.  They have no idea how much they share in common with some people they most despise; the gun owners, for instance. 

And yet, if we weigh the two groups in the balance, the gunners have by far the better case. They at least can point to something explicit in the constitution; they do not wish to protect a civilization-changing novelty. It is not on account of gun owners that two in five American children are born out of wedlock, and that far more than half of all marital and quasi-marital relationships do not endure. 

On the matter of sex, I fear, some of my colleagues are Benthamites without a utilitarian calculus; just laissez-faire, or another French infinitive, and to hell with everybody else, especially children.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College. 

 
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Comments (25)Add Comment
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written by Mark, April 24, 2013
Fire for effect accomplished.
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written by Manfred, April 24, 2013
Prof. Esolen: This battle was lost in 1968 in the dissent against Humanae Vitae in 1968. In November, 1968, the American bishops produced a document "Human Life in Our Day" which legitimized certain limited dissent from Church teachings. This was endorsed by Pope Bernardin the Last (yes, he of the "Seamless Garment") whose opinions held much sway before he faced the Lord in 1996. These are the fruits of the "Spirit" of Vatican II as well as same-sex "marriage" which is now a world-wide pandemic. You are in Academia, and it will not get any better.
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written by william manley, April 24, 2013
Mr. Esolen, the pro contraception people do have one very strong argument in a right to life frame of reference: birth control pills prevent abortions. Isn't it in the common good to prevent abortions?
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written by Athanasius, April 24, 2013
Quite often I encounter articles promoting views that are immoral, and the supporting arguments are mostly based on poor logic or emotion. Other times I encounter articles that do promote proper morality, but the author does not support their correct stance with a valid argument.

Once in a while, I read an argument that reaches a correct moral conclusion and it is well supported by a valid and sound argument. This article falls into this latter category (as do your other writings). Thank you, Tony.
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written by Dennis, April 24, 2013
Willaim Manley, When contraceptives fail, they may well lead to abortions.
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written by Mack Hall, HSG, April 24, 2013
Thank you, yes.

I have heard a cruder argument that works well even for secularists: "Buy your own da(r)ned condoms."
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written by Stanley Anderson, April 24, 2013
Divorce, contraception, abortion -- all three are the "bulimia" of the sexual world.

Here is one of my favorite GK Chesterton quotes on the subject in general. It is from his book on St. Francis of Asissi and he is talking about about the state of the world that St. Francis came into and responded to in his unique way (a world which is obviously still with us – or at least has returned to haunt us – even today):
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…But the truth I mean is something much more subtle and universal than a conventional catalogue of atrocities. What had happened to the human imagination, as a whole, was that the whole world was coloured by dangerous and rapidly deteriorating passions; by natural passions becoming unnatural passions. Thus the effect of treating sex as only one innocent natural thing was that every other innocent natural thing became soaked and sodden with sex. For sex cannot be admitted to a mere equality among the elementary emotions or experiences like eating and sleeping. The moment sex ceases to be a servant it becomes a tyrant. There is something dangerous and disproportionate in its place in human nature, for whatever reason; and it does really need a special purification and dedication. The modern talk about sex being free like any other sense, about the body being beautiful like any tree or flower, is either a description of the Garden of Eden or a piece of thoroughly bad psychology, of which the world grew weary two thousand years ago.
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, April 24, 2013
I accept the teaching of Humanae Vitae, but I am not sure I would find the argument that “contraception is not medical at all” particularly convincing. According to a number of sources, multiparity does affect a woman’s physiology and it would be surprising if it did not. According to the Royal College of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, pregnancy is most hazardous if a woman already has four or more children and infants are at greatest risk, when born less than two years apart. I doubt if any moral theologian would not recognise these as serious reasons, justifying the use of NFP.
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written by Howard Kainz, April 24, 2013
I think of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. It's one thing to argue about ideas, and quite another thing to confront ideologies.
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written by Tony Esolen, April 24, 2013
William: No, they are wrong.

They reason as if human beings were robots and not moral (or immoral) agents. Setting aside the by no means small matter, that the pills themselves often act as abortifacients, it is not true that the wide availability of the Pill actually reduces the number of "unwanted" children. That would be the case if people were things, simply. The Pill, rather, has altered the entire economy of sex. It has fundamentally altered the way the sexes encounter one another, and how they view children; that is, it has changed the moral culture. More people (by far) fornicate, and more often (by far); sex is considered something we claim by right, not as a complete self-giving in the act that brings children into the world; therefore, when the act does bring about what it was meant to bring about, namely a child, we rebel -- we wanted the pleasure without the responsibility; we wanted the phantasm and not the reality; we wanted, and we did not love.

Pope Paul VI predicted all this in Humanae Vitae. Odd, that a "mere" Pope could see miles farther than all the professional sociologists could -- unless the latter were, after all, lying through their teeth, knowing quite well that the Pill would do exactly what the Pope said it would; only they welcomed the destruction of the family, and the Pope wanted to protect the family.
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written by Sue, April 24, 2013
Michael P-S, your argument would also support abortion as "medical". Or, I can reduce my risk of car-crashes by not riding in cars - perhaps that too can be seen as "medical".

Pregnancy is not a disease, it's a gift. Yes, it comes with risks, and we should work to reduce those. One shining example of a charity that does so is "Matercare", working in developing countries to reduce maternal morbidity and mortality.

When we're given a gift, we don't take it back to the store, unwrapped. Thank God Beethoven's mother didn't follow the Royal College of OB's "medical" advice.
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written by Mr. Levy, April 24, 2013
Just so, Mr. Esolen, and very well written. Your experience matches mine, an experience by no means limited to the academy. Every leftist and centrist now displays these very same symptoms, as does, I am very sorry to say, many a conservative.

But this is all the result of the Leftist strategy, which rests, ironically, on a conservative truth: change the habits of the people and no argument will stand in their way. "Habit is king," as Herodotus wrote (although he may not have meant it unqualifiedly), and the Left has, by hook and by crook, through unconstitutional court decisions, irrational laws, the media, and the school systems, forced the people to change their habits.

Machiavelli was right to say that maintaining a republic is more difficult than founding one, and restoring the mores of a corrupted people was more difficult still.

The only way to restore the mores of the American people is to respond in kind to the Left and change the people's habits back again.

While few on the Right seem willing to engage in such a battle, it is the battle we must fight. All other battles flow from this one.
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written by Deacon Ed Peitler, April 24, 2013
#1 All of which proves that far too many of those in academia are really not all that smart and that there is a huge disconnect between the huge sums paid in tuition and the value of the product.

#2 It also proves that Catholic institutions had better get serious about hirtng only practicing Catholics who testify to their adherence to Church teachings (and I mean ALL Church teaching). If we cannot find Catholics qualified to teach undergraduate courses in all subjects, we ain't looking hard enough.

#3 Easy solution to the problem: let the university award an amount equivalent to what they are now paying for health care benefits and let the employees go out into the marketplace to purchase their own health insurance. Then they can estrogen themselves to death to their hearts content.
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written by George Sim Johnston, April 24, 2013
The idea that the Pill reduces the demand for abortion was exploded long ago. Even the Supreme Court has argued that, since so many rely on contraceptives, we have to have abortion. Many women who have abortions report that it is because of "contraceptive failure". So far has a woman's health goes, NFP is far better and it works (my wife and I used it all through her child-bearing years. The Mayo Clinic issued a study in October 2006 linking use of the Pill with breast cancer. Mr. Esolen's female colleagues, who are so vehement about you and I paying for their contraceptives think that the Pill gives them more "control". What the Pill has done, though, is create an environment where men have no responsibility.
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written by Gian, April 25, 2013
"Unless we are to lie supine before the onslaught of every “new‘n’improved” tool or foodstuff or poison, we must ask, “Does this support or does it undermine the common good?”"

Why is that conservatives never seem to ask capitalists this question?
All this innovation that conservative rightly decrys has been brought by Entrepreunerurs and Capitalists, the two classes the conservative puts onto the high pedestral.
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written by Randall, April 25, 2013
I'm reading this a day after it was posted - sorry didn't have time to check out TCT yesterday. But, once again Professor Esolen, an excellently reasoned piece. Sir, reading you is always time well spent.
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written by Chris in Maryland, April 25, 2013
Gian - don't change the subject...I don't know whether its just a reflex or on purpose...but don't change the subject.

This is "The Catholic Thing" not "NRO." Stop trying to wrench everything back through the political lens...thus avoiding the issue and its proper arguments. Yes - many Church going Catholics are conservative politically - so what? - the intersection of those ven diagrams is forensics - not causality. Address Mr. Esolen's points...that's what the purpose is here.
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written by Mr. Levy, April 25, 2013
Conservatives DO ask capitalists that question, Gian. That's why, for instance, conservatives oppose pornography even though it's good business. Conservatives oppose abortion even though that's also good business. Conservatives aren't pure free marketers. They don't think that the bottom line is the moral bottom line.
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written by John II, April 27, 2013
Slightly off-topic, or at least tangential to the topic, I'd like say that it's encouraging to learn that Providence College (a) is actually discussing this issue and (b) includes among its teachers a fair sprinkling of colleagues exhibiting a disposition like-minded to Tony Esolen's.

In the Jesuit university where I've taught nearly forty years now, the HHS mandate simply isn't an issue. The secular-left disposition is the ONLY optic on display and de facto the only one tolerated. Our many feminist professors should perhaps feel cheated of any very frequent opportunity to display their perpetual indignation.

Note to Tony: Love your translations of Lucretius and of Dante, the latter of which I use regularly in a classical/medieval survey course.
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written by Scott Waddell, April 29, 2013
William: No, they are wrong.

They reason as if human beings were robots and not moral (or immoral) agents.

The denial of Man's moral agency is reaching the tragicomic stage. I hear it in statements like:

--Birth control reduces abortions.
--Speaking about the wrongness of homosexuality causes more homosexual teens to commit suicide.
--And recently at Crisis magazine, someone argued in all seriousness, that pro-lifers kill babies already born with their pro-life activity. Get that? We've gone from the falsehood that "Pro-lifers don't care about children after their born" to we are choosing their deaths.
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written by ryan, April 29, 2013
Mr. Manley. You are not correct. Oral contraceptives function two ways. By preventing ovulation and by preventing implantation; That is implantation of a newly formed en-souled human person. Whose death results. Most seek abortion not because they wish to kill (Gosnell aside) but because they wish to contracept. Abortion is radical contraception.
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written by Donna, April 29, 2013
I hear you say you resent having to pay for contraceptives, something you believe is a personal choice that should not have to be paid for by people who believe it is wrong. Well, as a person without children, who believes we should limit families to 2 birth-children, I greatly resent having to defray the cost for health care caused by families with children. I believe health insurance should be billed per person, not as "single coverage" and "family coverage." Your cost should go up for each child/dependent you add, instead of spreading the higher cost of large families onto the backs of smaller families or childless couples.

And I believe it is time to stop rewarding families with a tax deduction for every child/dependent. Let's make it a tax deduction for the first year or two of adopting, instead. You are still free to have as many children as you like. Just don't expect the rest of us to help foot the bills.

And while we are talking about nonmedical items covered by health insurance, I did not hear one word about taking erectile dysfunction drugs off the list of covered items. Before we discuss whether or not to pay for contraceptives, maybe we should talk about the ED pharmaceuticals. That is surely a category of drugs that should fall into the optional, you-pay-for-it-yourself-if-you-want-it group. It really bothers me to hear men pontificating about women's health issues. How would it sound if it was a mostly female chorus chanting about the high cost of men's health care issues and listing which items we could rationalize that men do without?

Meanwhile, I am ready and willing to pay for my own shingles vaccination. My sister who is 5 years younger than I am has already had her first outbreak of shingles. However, I cannot find anyone who will sell me the vaccination because I am not yet 60 years old. There is no shortage of vaccine. There is no danger. There IS a federal guideline that it not be administered before age 60.

All of this is part of my belief that the care and maintenance of my body should not be anyone's business except me and my doctor's.

It's too bad that health insurance is necessary to pay for nearly all health care now. Costs are out of control. I went in to pay my part of a hospital bill last summer and was told that, because I was paying cash, I was entitled to a substantial discount. Is there a true cost or do they just spin a wheel or throw a dart for a number to put on the bill?

A doctor walks in to an emergency room to tell a patient she needs to take a pill, and charges a $1700 consultant fee for that 90 second visit. A ride in an ambulance can be calculated at around $10 per foot of ground traveled. There is much more wrong with health care than asking an employer to pay for something that requires a doctor's prescription.
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written by Wanda, May 04, 2013
Lest you forget....contraception is an abortifacient. Contraception is abortion.
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written by Elizabeth, May 04, 2013
Donna:

As it happens, our health insurance HAS increased with each child my husband and I have welcomed into the world. And the reason the government offers tax deductions for each child is because they need people to have children to support all the people drawing Social Security and Medicare after they retire. Our system only functions if more people are working than retired. That happens when people have lots of children. Now that people aren't having lots of children, the country is going broke. The government offers incentives for having children because they need future tax payers, and lots of them. It's the only way the system works.
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written by Donna L., May 06, 2013
Thank you so much for this amazing article.

I am always surprised, and rather dismayed when people who "think" they are intelligent, cannot engage in well-thought out arguments. As some commenters here...

I am quite sure that shingles and the medicine needed for that, is a far different thing than contraceptive pills.

I would ask those who feel they ought to have these things paid for by others, why? Why do you HAVE to have sex? Can you not take the higher moral ground, and separate yourselves from the animals who just do what they do due to their instincts? Use common sense! There is only one way to avoid having sex lead to a baby---abstinence! There. Was that so hard? And another thing--it's free!

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