In the conflict between the Obama administration and the Catholic church over mandated contraceptive coverage in health insurance policies, it’s easy to understand the motivations of the church. Catholics object to artificial contraception—and to abortifacients and sterilization, reimbursement for which is also mandated—as a matter of doctrine, owing to their beliefs about the dignity of the human person.
The church’s allies—evangelical Christians, Tea Partiers, and other non-Catholic conservatives—are motivated by a conviction that, theology aside, the Obamacare edict forcing the church to pay for procedures it finds morally objectionable is an unconstitutional trespass on the free exercise of religion.
But what is it that motivates those on the left? Why do they care so deeply about the kind of insurance coverage Catholic employers provide? It’s not as if NARAL and Planned Parenthood devotees are heavily represented in the workforce of Catholic institutions. And you don’t see petitions from leftwing pressure groups calling on the church to provide better dental and vision coverage, or mental health benefits. Which would, as a pragmatic matter, be much more helpful for more of the workforce than the contraceptive mandate. No, for the left, the fight isn’t about social justice or the proper scope of the state. It’s about the contraceptives. It’s about sex.
The upheaval of the 1960s was a many-splendored thing, but it produced one permanent orthodoxy for liberalism: an absolute commitment to sexual liberation. As it aged, the left compromised on every other counter-cultural idea from that period—from pacifism to socialism to anti-materialism. The hippies stopped dropping acid and got high-paying jobs in the tech sector. They got married and stopped questioning authority and sent their kids to good schools. They enjoyed lower tax rates and spent their money at the Apple Store and Le Pain Quotidien. But to this day “the central dogma of the baby boomers,” as David Frum once wrote in these pages, is “the belief that sex, so long as it’s consensual, ought never to be subject to moral scrutiny at all.”
Sexual liberation began with the pill. Enovid was approved by the FDA in 1960 and was originally conceived of as a way to stem world overpopulation. The world, as longtime promoter Margaret Sanger put it in the 1950s, “is going to depend on a simple, cheap safe contraceptive to be used in poverty stricken slums, jungles, and among the most ignorant people.” Only it didn’t quite work out that way. By 1965, 6.5 million American women were taking the pill, most of them white and middle-class. Today, there are about 10.5 million American women on the pill. That might not sound like much, but it’s 28 percent of the universe of women who are “at risk” of pregnancy. Overall, 82 percent of American women who have ever had sex have, at some point, been on the pill.
The pill created the possibility of a world where sex would have no dire consequences. In 1973, Roe v. Wade guaranteed it with a universal abortion right that acted as insurance against contraceptive failure. Sex was now free from repercussions even if it did result in pregnancy.
With the logistical consequences of sex conquered, liberals moved on to dismantling the moral consequences. As Frum noted in the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the left had to rally round President Clinton because “you start with an apparently sensible restriction—married presidents shouldn’t have sex with government employees in the Oval Office—and the next thing you know, it’s back to Nathaniel Hawthorne [and] . . . Puritan New England.” And that can’t be allowed. It was the same absolutist belief which led Clinton to the only unpopular policy stance he ever took on principle—vetoing the partial-birth abortion ban, which an overwhelming majority of Americans backed.
It’s been half a century since the writer Peter Viereck remarked that anti-Catholicism has become the anti-Semitism of intellectuals. Today, anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism not just of intellectuals but of the church of liberalism. It is no surprise that the Obama administration’s contraceptive “compromise” was no compromise at all but the same edict dressed up in new rhetoric. Compared with religious freedom and the First Amendment, the out-of-pocket expense of contraceptives might seem like a minor issue. But for the left, it’s a matter of dogma. And that dogma is sexual liberation.