12th Dec 2012

Sandra Fluke Is Woman of the Year

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

You may have heard that Sandra Fluke is in the running for Time magazine’s famous year-end Person of the Year cover. She, of course, is the Georgetown Law “reproductive health” activist who became the public face of President Obama’s mandate that requires employers to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization in their insurance plans or else face crippling fines.

Though the online voting for the award isn’t currently in her favor, I’ll actually be disappointed if the Time cover features anyone but her. Let me explain.

Fluke represents a debate we ought to be having out in the open. Her Time cover status would highlight a claim that permeated the just-concluded political campaign and became for some a cultural mantra of the year: That the Republican Party and the Catholic Church leaders who oppose the Department and Health and Human Services mandate somehow are waging a “war on women.” The assumption behind it is that women will never be free unless they can medicate their fertility away.

As a prime-time speaker at the Democratic convention in North Carolina this summer, Fluke complained about being shut out of a hearing panel of religious leaders on religious liberty and the HHS mandate. Besides giving the erroneous impression that there were no women at the hearing because of her absence — something that had been claimed for months and, I fully expect, will live on as an urban legend — she spoke on the issue in terms of equality and freedom. Anyone half-paying attention to her speech might have found what she said completely unobjectionable. Listen to longer-form testimony, though, and the principled agenda of marginalizing religious liberty becomes much more clear.

But what she was advocating was to equate “women’s health” with the full panoply of reproductive drugs and services. What she was advocating was a bureaucratic regulation that treats pregnancy as a disease, and fertility as a condition to be suppressed. What she was advocating was a coercive, punitive policy that represents a dramatic narrowing of our understanding of religious liberty.

We didn’t actually have a vote on that. Media stories mentioned that contraception was involved, and that some Catholic bishops were upset. But nothing like a transparent national debate ever happened. This issue of the HHS mandate and its infringement upon religious freedom is something we need to discuss out in the open. And it’s imperative we do so not just as a national matter, but also up close and personal — parish by parish, in our homes and communities — because we probably want something better than what the HHS and the Obama administration has imposed upon us.

The cultural moment which this political policy is buttressing here was most crassly expressed in a late-season campaign ad for the Obama campaign. In television spots aimed at young adults in which casting one’s first presidential vote for Obama was likened to having sex for the first time, Lena Dunham, the creator and star of HBO’s raunchy series The Girls, offered a not-so-super-veiled analogy: “It’s super uncool to be out and about and someone says, ‘Did you vote?’ and [you respond] ‘No, I didn’t vote, I wasn’t ready.’”

What a cut to the throat of innocence! Still, the nakedness of this display was actually refreshing in its transparency about what this is all about: Affirming and supporting hurtful attitudes.

The ad accomplished this by managing to combine “sexual and political debut—and vulgarize[d] both,” Jennifer Marshall of the Heritage Foundation wrote at the time. “In a day when more than 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage (and therefore six times more likely to experience poverty) and one out of four teen girls has a sexually transmitted disease, it is brazenly irresponsible of any leader to play on premarital sex in this way.”

Perhaps even more disappointing, Marshall added, is that “purported champions of women’s interests would objectify female sexuality for political ends. It’s hard to imagine any woman not being revolted, anyone with a daughter not being scandalized.”

But instead of revolt, there’s still a lot of complacency and indifference, maybe all informed by a collective cultural despair. A culture where the corporate abortion lobby is making the calls would cast that kind of dark cloud.

The HHS mandate was created with Planned Parenthood, the country’s largest abortion provider, in the room (and, we know, literally as a meaningless “accommodation” was crafted), and it’s no surprise or accident that the Planned Parenthood Action Fund was the winningest political group in the 2012 campaign. The Washington Post reports that 98 percent of spending by this action fund “was in races that ended with the desired result.” Their targeting was about scaring women away from Mitt Romney, who people were supposed to believe was going to somehow impact contraceptive access in America. “Planned Parenthood understood the importance of Montana’s race because women’s rights were at stake, and they knew winning was going to take hard work and connecting directly with Montanans,” Jon Tester, a pro-choice Democrat who just won re-election to the U.S. Senate from Montana, told the Post.

You noticed that, right? Women’s rights? That’s precisely the message Planned Parenthood and the Obama campaign sought to drive home. And it’s precisely the “new normal,” to use an overused but aptly alarming phrase, we just might want to confront. It’s not only “pearl clutchers” and Catholics who might want to consider an alternative — one in which contraception isn’t a “human right” that trumps religious freedom and good sense; one in which we don’t pretend that letting our schoolgirls get Depo-Provera shots at school and having emergency contraception in their purses is healthy cultural behavior (both are happening in some New York City public schools, the latter is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics for all girls as a matter of medical course); one where fertility is no longer considered an impediment to freedom and success and flourishing.

“It is hard to communicate to young women — but we should try — how wonderful it feels as a woman at age forty or fifty or beyond, to have a body free of the health worries associated with decades of hormonal drug use (more on this later), and a marriage permeated with inescapably mutual responsibility respecting sex, not to mention regular conversations about the meanings and consequences of sex, and about why or why not to seek another child,” Helen Alvare wrote in a recent series of essays for the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton.

“There is also the beauty of remembering,” she continued, “against the world’s oft-repeated mantra, ‘unprotected sex makes babies’ — that it is indeed sex that makes babies. And to recall every beautiful thing that this implies: that a man and a woman’s complete sharing of themselves with another who is different but complementary — body and soul — creates a new being, with an immortal soul, whose very existence both reminds the parents of their love and calls them to be faithful unto death.”

This is the alternative vision.  It’s one way more attractive than campaign e-cards insisting we “vote like our lady parts depend on it,” which is code for an impoverished norm that insists that women are expected to live lives of biological suppression, that freedom itself insists on it. The prevailing culture seems so convinced this is the way things ought to be, doubling down on misery, that we’ve even come to the point where to propose the alternative is seen as imposing.

This November, we did more than re-elect a president. We were issued a wake-up call. What is religious liberty when freedom and health are misunderstood? What is the pursuit of happiness when we’re medicating femininity?

When even professed Catholics regularly are heard to claim that their faith can be kept separate from their public-policy positions, we have all the evidence we need to prove that the Catholic Church suffers from a catechetical crisis. Sandra Fluke helps bring our cultural crisis into the open: That we would ever accept that girls could go through their young lives believing that contraception is simply expected in their young single lives. That’s unacceptable. And you don’t have to oppose the use of contraception to agree that this is an injustice: No longer celebrating women and men and the most creative gift there is, but setting up our young people to use and be used.

As part of her original testimony, delivered at a House Democrats’ press event, Sandra Fluke pointed to an anonymous Georgetown student, identified as a lesbian, who was prescribed a contraceptive pill for use as hormone therapy. If the university’s insurance plan wouldn’t cover that, it was a matter of bureaucratic error, not a moral edict. But not even Georgetown cared to make that point, instead contributing to the histrionics of the hour by expressing pride in their activist student.

It’s not hard to imagine that while attending a Catholic institution, Fluke, like many others, never really got a shot at seeing a joyful, clear, compelling testimony of what exactly it is the Catholic Church proposes in the vision of human sexuality its teaching presents. That’s an injustice. That’s unacceptable. And that’s why Sandra Fluke is the “woman of the year,” the one who helped wake us up out of our sleep — as a Church, as a culture, as mothers, as sisters, as fathers, as brothers, as wives as husbands, as teachers, as friends, and as young people helping one another insist on something more than what the culture is feeding them.

So, thank you, Sandra Fluke, and everyone who celebrated her activism. This was a pivotal moment in a revolution that has been ongoing. If we deny the revolution and mask its consequences, then we do so at our own peril and impoverishment.

No campaign to protect religious liberty will ever be successful without an appreciation of the fact that religious faith might offer a superior vision what it means to lead a good life, a life that is entirely within our grasp, a life filled with all the dignity and meaning that we lose whenever we pursue happiness in all the wrong places. Even fallen and frequently lost, we have the offer of redemption and the responsibility to rebuild. It’s time we did so. And that’s no fluke.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a nationally syndicated columnist. She speaks frequently on faith and public life and blogs on Catholic things at K-Lo@Large.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)