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Searching for Abigail

Men are tyrants, and other nuggets of wisdom



I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute…

— from a March 31, 1776, letter by Abigail Adams to her husband, John Adams, who, at the time, was in Philadelphia declaring American independence. Abigail, back home in Massachusetts, was running the family farm all by herself, while caring for their five children.

Women have to be asking, “Where is Abigail when we need her?” Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, for one, charges that those "tyrants" Abigail worried about are up to nothing less than "Sexual McCarthyism."

“In addition to legislatively forced physical procedures,” Granholm says, “it should come as no surprise that women are angered by patronizing bills mandating waiting periods or forced ‘reflection’ on images or on text written by legislators — bills that assume women are empty-headed children.”

What caused this avalanche of misogyny to break loose? Terry Eagleton, in his book Reason, Faith and Revolution, agrees with Susan Faludi, who observed that in response to 9/11, America went macho. Conservatives felt that women had made men "grow flabby."

One reporter wrote, "Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map" — his empathetic response to the loss of 3,000 lives. Donald Rumsfeld was viewed as a kind of "squinty-eyed" short man Rambo — celebrated as a "stud," called a "babe magnet" and "the sexiest man alive.”

Could it be that Abigail's tyrants have been seething all these years, down deep in their studterranean lairs, just hoping that someone restores sanity by putting women back in their places?

To the rescue, along comes the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. They charge that by mandating that health care policies include contraception, the president and his administration "threaten freedom of religion."

The president moved quickly to defuse the issue by taking cost off the table. His action, while viewed as a "good start," did not satisfy the more rigid bishops.

Garry Wills, a Catholic intellectual who is no stranger to taking on his church's hierarchy, isn't buying anything the bishops are dishing out.

He titled his New York Review of Books column "Contraception's Con Men," arguing that there is no scriptural basis for opposing contraception and that the freedom-of-religion issue is bogus.    

And he doesn't stop there. He also takes on the pope's 1968 Humane Vitae encyclical, which serves as the basis for what Wills argues is nothing more than the Vatican's efforts to force Catholic dogma on non-Catholics. He agrees with Andrew Greeley, who wrote that this ill-advised pronouncement has done more damage to the Catholic Church than anything the liberals ever dreamed up.

The "freedom" issue does seem more than a bit of a stretch. The government doesn't mandate the use of contraceptives, only their availability (to be paid for by insurance companies). Nor are the bishops convincing when they claim that a Catholic institution is a Catholic institution is a Catholic institution.

Surely it can't be their position that freedom of religion means that the church hospitals, staffed as they are today by so many non-Catholics, can expect to receive unqualified public support in the form of Medicare, Medicaid and research grants when they discriminate against these very employees.

For that matter, how about discriminating against Catholic employees? According to a study by the Guttmacher Institute, 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraceptives. Moreover, the bishops have to know that across the country, many Catholic hospitals already cover contraception — I suggest a more accurate reading of what these institutions are really about.

In any case, freedom of religion is not considered to be absolute. In the 1878 Reynolds case, the Supreme Court upheld federal anti-polygamy laws, holding that while Mormons can believe anything they want to about polygamy, they do not necessarily have the right to act on that belief.

Regarding the contraception issue, when we get beyond sentiment clung to as belief, what the bishops demand for an exemption amounts to nothing less than acting on belief, which effectively discriminates against the many (likely a majority) non-Catholic employees who might want or have a need for contraceptives.

Moreover, they could well bring the church into conflict with the Establishment Clause. Not surprisingly, the bishops have avoided mentioning the opening line in the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion …"

Piety aside, we must be dealing here with a Goodbye Mr. Chips moment — nostalgia for the good old pre-Vatican II days. Either that or what amounts to an organizational power move. Garry Wills thinks it’s the latter — the way that bishops seek to impose Catholicism on the public.

This wouldn't surprise Mrs. Adams, who believed that when the men are in control (e.g. the bishops), women will be inevitably be reduced to Granholm's "empty-headed children."

And what about the physicians? The bishops also fail to consider that physicians have their own code of ethics, which, in important ways, differ from ethics as enunciated by the bishops. For example, the AMA code says nothing about contraceptives being immoral, and, as regards to abortions, it gives doctors the moral green light, subject only to legal restrictions.

Now, assuming that Catholic-owned hospitals hire highly trained physicians — some of whom are Catholic, rather than ultra-compliant Catholics; some of whom are highly trained physicians — then it follows that the AMA ethics should prevail in cases of conflict. Doctors, after all, take an oath to do no harm. They don't take an oath to "do no harm" subject to orders passed down from the bishops.   

What's worse are all these part-time state legislators (most recently in Idaho), few of whom have any medical expertise, who presume to control the doctor’s decision by imposing humiliating and invasive procedures on women who seek to exercise their constitutional right to have a first-term abortion.

And next step the Dark Ages? Is that it? Their ignorance is exceeded only by their moralizing presumptuousness.
The bishops find themselves on shaky ground for still other reasons. They speak of opposing so-called "Cafeteria Catholics," but isn't that just what they are up to when they denounce Notre Dame for inviting Obama to speak at commencement but say nothing about George W. Bush's manifest sins? After all, the last four popes have spoken out against "Wars of Choice," the death penalty and inequality. Bush was at the center of all three forms of transgression. He signed more death warrants than any other governor, ever. He waged a war of choice. And he certainly encouraged greed while supporting a tax policy that has contributed to inequality. And nary a word from the bishops.

Oh, yes, from time to time they come out with a letter or two, always equivocal. For example, they wrote that Bush's war "raised serious questions." A long way from saying that the president is "threatening the free exercise of religion." And so far as I know, no parishioner has been denied communion or even chastised because he applauded the death penalty at a political rally.

Frankly, the bishops seem to have no problem at all with double standards. To begin with, there’s no mention that birth control has greatly reduced the number of unwanted pregnancies — and therefore abortions — in America. And we also don’t hear a word about male contraception. Condoms? Nope. Vasectomies? Nothing, even though they are routinely being performed on Catholic hospital campuses.

Granholm and so many others are right: When all the sophistry is peeled away, this is all about denial of women's rights — that, and making life harder for poor people.

Adding the comic to the bizarre, the bishops grind away at contraception (because, they assert, it violates natural law), but they are OK with Viagra (non-natural though it is). They justify this double standard because anything that promotes conception is a good thing.

Viagra? Conception? Have the bishops never watched those “come hither” commercials? Do they really think that corporate America is selling conception "when the time is right." Are they that out of touch?

Oh yes, and let's not leave this out: They then make a 180-degree turn and oppose artificial insemination. The very clear message? Men? Non-natural, OK. Women? Non-natural, not OK.

John F. Kennedy, in his brilliant 1960 Houston speech, exorcized the term "papist" from the American vernacular. But what if the bishops' opposition to female contraception and women's reproductive rights comes to be viewed as contributing to rolling back those hard-won rights by the narrow (five men) Catholic Supreme Court majority? Then we all lose — the court, the public, the bishops and even the Catholic Church.
Why? Because "papist" might well make a comeback.       

The bishops might avoid this eventuality were they to clarify their position on health care reform with reference to Catholic social teachings, applaud the government's intent, while at the same time redirecting their concerns directly onto the immorality of the death penalty, wars of choice and inequality.   

As for women's rights, Abigail would add both a request and a warning:

If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.  

Given the state of affairs, American women might want to consider this option, heeding the advice once uttered by Bobby Kennedy: "If not now, when? If not us, who?"

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