I recently had a chance to take a careful look at the testimony of Sandra Fluke before the House Democrats. What I saw disturbed me greatly, and not simply because I am a Catholic who strenuously opposes Obama’s assault on religious liberty. There are a number of other assumptions at work in the thinking of Ms. Fluke and all who share her worldview that cannot go unaddressed. Some of them might be identified by pointing out that this is not, as was initially reported, a relatively innocent 23-year old female law student, but rather a 30 year-old hardened feminist activist who enrolled at Georgetown with a mission to challenge its contraception coverage policies. Others are more subtle.
The first assumption is that Obamacare itself is irrevocably settled law. The only acceptable debate parameters are the specific provisions and applications of the law, while the question of its inherent validity, legality or practicality is now resolved. It causes one to wonder if the contraception mandate itself, which was audacious and perhaps irrational from the standpoint of electoral politics, was a calculated ploy to shift the debate. Once we begin debating the specific applications of Obamacare, we have implicitly accepted Obamacare. The resistance to the general idea is dulled and weakened, if not entirely forgotten.
If that weren’t bad enough, however, it also becomes clear through Ms. Fluke’s testimony that we live in different moral universes that appear to be entirely incompatible. To read the first part of her testimony, much of which focuses on the hardships allegedly endured due to a lack of contraception coverage, you would think someone abducted her and these women from their homes, put them in shackles, and shipped them to Georgetown in crates against their will. Or that a cruel society forced them, to use her words, “to pick between a quality education and our health.”
That her words might be seen as such was anticipated by Ms. Fluke, the prepared and professional activist. In response to the crazy notion that she and other women ought to have expected that a Catholic university did not cover contraception, she replies near the end of her testimony that “we expected women to be treated equally, to not have our school create untenable burdens that impede our academic success.” One may easily reply that women are treated equally: men don’t have access to contraception coverage at Georgetown either. Georgetown will not pay for a vasectomy or a year’s supply of condoms for a male student, and so it isn’t reasonable to expect it to pay for a female student’s birth control pills. Since when were women they only people who might want to use contraception?
It seems tiresome to point out that a privately-run institution has absolutely no obligation to provide specific goods and services to anyone, and that there are countless alternatives for those who want to attend a university that provides them with the specific coverage they would like. If, as Ms. Fluke contends, 94% of the students disagree with the Georgetown policy, then eventually the forces of supply and demand would determine the fate of the university; most people would simply choose a different school, and Georgetown would either change its policy or close its doors. Faced with a plethora of choices, options, freedoms, and liberties laid out like a buffet before them as no people in the history of human civilization have ever enjoyed, however, Mrs. Fluke portrays these women as the helpless victims of injustice. It is quite simply an outrageous lie.
Ms. Fluke actually presented a rather long list of what she and her cohorts did and did not expect, and they all amount to this: we expected to be given exactly what we demanded, immediately, without reservations and without any consideration whatsoever for the consciences or concerns of anyone else.
We are all caught up in the legal aspects of this controversy, but if we consider the implications of these aggressive demands, something more disconcerting emerges.
The law, contrary to some opinions, is not the foundation of society. On the contrary, the law exists to patch up the areas of society that have become more or less dysfunctional. Friends have no need to invoke their rights or the law in order to enforce a claim; people who generally tolerate, if not respect one another should only sparingly need recourse to the law. Moreover in a free society, there ought to be many extra-legal remedies available for the vast majority of disputes. Case in point: if you don’t like one school’s insurance policy, you can easily go to another one. Every aggressive demand for a new right, or to compel a person or an institution to provide a good or perform a service that they don’t want to provide or perform is in reality another crack in the social structure.
Not only was Ms. Fluke’s testimony devoid of any semblance of respect for the Catholic conscience (she blithely assumes that the “recently announced adjustment” addresses all possible religious objections), but it indicated an unwillingness to even consider it. Beyond that, her mission is not really to obtain free access to contraception coverage, which she or anyone else could obtain at any number of prestigious schools, but rather to score a public political and ideological victory over the Church by forcing it to partake in practices it finds immoral and unconscionable. This is the new social activism, which by-passes any attempt at mutual dialogue and marches straight to the officials, authorities and bureaucracies to compel others to give them what they want.
Catholics have become accustom to a much different operating principle than that of Ms. Fluke. For the past two centuries she has been accommodating the forces of liberalism and modernity, to the point at which it appears to some that there is almost nothing left to give without sacrificing something essential, something without which the Church would cease to be the Church. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Libertas, argued that the Church and the state could and ought to tolerate certain evils for the sake of a greater social good, though we can never call something that is evil “good”, even if we do tolerate it. What is a principle for Catholics, however, is for our avowed enemies a mere tactic to be employed as long as they do not have the power to push beyond tolerance into aggression and compulsion. Now it appears they have this power, or at least believe that they do.
In such contests, reason is of no avail. Ms. Fluke declares that “we resent that in the 21st century, anyone thinks it’s acceptable to ask us to make this choice [between education and contraception] simply because we are women.” Think of how utterly at odds with reality this statement is: absolutely no one asked her to do anything, nor are female students at Georgetown denied contraception coverage “simply because they are women”, a completely false suggestion. Moreover, it is she who is asking that Catholics violate their own consciences and beliefs to accommodate her own without the slightest indication that she understands or cares in the least about them. Is it right, at any time – never mind what century it is – to ask people to choose between obedience to God and marginalization or even outright oppression by the state?
It would almost be easier and even more welcome to a certain extent, if Ms. Fluke, President Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sibelius would simply say to orthodox Catholics, “can you please cease to exist, can you just go away?”
Here is the proper response.