Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rush the uniter


WASHINGTON—Who'd have thought that Rush Limbaugh would become the great uniter in this divisive political season?

Indeed, he has united decent people of all stripes and persuasions with his vile remarks about a Georgetown law student.

Perhaps by now you've heard of Sandra Fluke, who created a smallish tempest when she tried to testify before a congressional committee considering the federal Health and Human Services contraception mandate and was denied a place at the (all-male) table. There really was no reason for her to testify. The subject was religious freedom versus government overreach, not contraception per se, but this detail no longer seems to matter.

Fluke stalked out of the hearing room and has enjoyed the media spotlight ever since. She did finally get to testify at an unofficial hearing convened by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, during which she focused on Republican "censorship," which, fascinating as it sounds, was a sidebar to a non sequitur.

You may be excused for being confused and/or bored by all this talk of contraceptives. Having access to contraception hasn't been controversial except in the Catholic Church for some time and wouldn't be now if not for the new mandate that nearly every employer offer insurance to pay for it.

The only question—ever—has been whether the federal government can force religious organizations to pay for something that violates their freedom of conscience. For the record, if I were dictator, I'd put contraceptives in the drinking water on college campuses. But the Catholic Church and other religious entities do not share my view, and our laws have always tried to allow generous exceptions to rules that conflict with moral principle.

The question of whether the Obama administration is acting constitutionally has been posed to the courts by religious-liberty scholars (and seven state attorneys general), so we'll have an answer soon enough. In the meantime, the administration has promised to "accommodate" religious groups so that only insurance companies have to pay for women's contraception.

Whether this is an adequate remedy is also debatable. Can the government really force private insurance companies to cover certain medications and/or procedures? What if religious organizations are self-insuring, as is the case with many Catholic organizations? And, isn't this just an accounting sleight of hand, because in the end the religious entity would be paying for the morally offensive product?

These are clearly compelling questions on which Limbaugh might have focused his gargantuan energies. Instead, he attacked Fluke in the vilest terms. Moreover, by addressing her argument that college women need contraception and should be able to get it for free, he essentially lent credence to the opposition narrative that this is all about birth control.

Inadvertently, Rush also helped advance the argument from the left that Republicans are waging a war against women. After referring to Fluke as a "slut" and a "prostitute," he offered the following proposition:

"So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you feminazis, here's the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives ... we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

The image suggested is equally degrading to Limbaugh given his obvious familiarity with "watching," and invites unflattering speculation. To wit: It is entirely possible that Limbaugh himself never needed contraception in college, but virtue in the absence of opportunity is hardly a moral triumph.

I am not convinced by Fluke's premise that her need for contraception is anyone else's responsibility. There is perhaps some logic in subsidizing contraception for the poor, which the government already does through Title X, to reduce abortions and prevent the conception of children, who, owing to a parent's inability to care for said progeny, might become wards of the state. This, again, is a sidebar tangential to the key question.

The point is that Limbaugh has so offended with his remarks that he has further muddled the issues. I realize he's "just an entertainer," as his apologists insist, but he is also considered a leading and powerful conservative voice. By his remarks, he has marginalized legitimate arguments and provided a trove of ammunition to those seeking to demonize Republicans who, along with at least some of their Democratic colleagues, are legitimately concerned with religious liberty. As a bonus, he has given his "feminazis" justification for their claims that conservatives hate women.

Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com. (c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group




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