See No Evil

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. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.