post

My God-Given Right to Viagra

Women should pay to prevent a pregnancy but the government should pay to ensure that men can have erections. That absurd opinion is why, in large measure, we’ve been having a mini-meltdown recently in the blogosphere, the press, and public discourse generally in the U.S.  I wish I were making this stuff up.

Some of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act that just went into effect on August 1 mandate insurance coverage for basic (and sometimes not-so-basic) women’s reproductive health. That’s not the only kind of coverage for women, but that’s the stuff that’s getting all the attention, and for good patriarchal reasons. Let’s recall that since January 1, 2006, Medicare has provided prescription drug coverage for Viagra (among other drugs to alleviate male sexual impotence, and some private insurance companies do the same).

Health care in the United States is wildly and unnecessarily complex, but this much seems clear: Our society is willing to pay for men to “get it on” but not to protect women when men do so. This is yet another sad and alarming instance of the current war on women.

I would dial back that rhetoric a bit if the situation weren’t quite so dire. Alas, there is a war going on, and women’s bodies are on the front line. The now-infamous legislation in Virginia mandating a medically unnecessary “vaginal probe” before an abortion is just one among too many examples. (I blogged about this “war” a few months ago.)

But let’s consider a broader critique that appeared a few years ago about Medicare coverage for Viagra. The mini-outcry then was about covering access to “elective” medical help.

Back then, Dr. Ira Sharlip from the University of California in San Francisco conceded that Viagra and other such drugs “treat a condition that compromises the quality of life but doesn’t threaten life.” But then he added, “There are many drugs that are approved for quality-of-life indications. It wouldn’t be right to single out [impotence drugs] as frivolous when there are so many others in the same category.”

Dr. Sharlip meant things like the “purple pill,” for acid reflux, or intensive doses of Ibuprofen for pain, or knee surgery for better walking, or sinus procedures for better sleeping, or…the list goes on and on. What exactly is “frivolous” when it comes to health and quality of life? That’s a key question for which I have no ready answers. But I do know this: making a distinction between men and women in that equation is wrong.

There are many reasons why I, an Episcopal priest, theologian, and gay man, should and do care about this. Among those reasons is this: the supposed “religious exemption” argument that is now being trotted out by politically religious reactionaries as an escape hatch for caring about women and women’s bodies – and not just women, but everyone who isn’t, frankly, a white, straight, wealthy, married man.

A recent Kentucky appeals court ruling that involved this vague “religious exemption” ought to send shivers down the spine of every religiously-affiliated U.S. citizen, and indeed everyone in this country. In brief: Kentucky’s court refused to intervene in a tenure dispute at Louisville Theological Seminary after tenured faculty had been let go. Because the institution in question is religious, the court cited the “religious exemption” escape hatch and dismissed the suit brought by the fired faculty members.

Is that really the standard we want to set in a democratic society that is increasingly marked by religious pluralism? Do we really want to say that our courts of law provide no recourse whatsoever, even in basic breach of contract disputes just because they pertain to religious institutions?

What about a religious exemption for individuals and not just institutions? Parents apparently have the right to refuse to vaccinate their children for “religious reasons,” even though this could put others at risk in public schools.

Or consider yet another recent court decision, this one by a federal judge who ruled that the Roman Catholic owners of a Colorado heating-and-cooling company are exempt from the mandate to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health-insurance plans – for religious reasons.

Unless a “heating-and-cooling company” is now a new way to refer to a church, this ruling surely qualifies as a classic slippery slope. Should I worry that a plumber, who might also be a “conservative” Christian, will refuse to fix my toilet if he finds out I’m not a heterosexual?

In the midst of all this, it’s time for liberal/progressive Christians to be very clear about what the latest health care brouhaha entails, and it’s not about respecting religious freedom. It is instead about whether men have the right to control women. (See this opinion piece in the New York Times.)  This story is, sadly, as old as our species: Men want to have erections whenever they please and make women pay the price. I really do not believe the Jesus I read about in the Gospels would approve.

I no more have an inherent right to erection-enhancement drugs than I have a right to control women’s bodies or, for that matter, the body of any other human being. But what if all of us did have a right to access whatever we needed to ensure the best quality of life for ourselves, our partners, our spouses, our children, our families, and our communities? And what if that included both Viagra and The Pill? That would be a society more aligned with how I read the Gospels.

Let’s be clear about this, too: religious institutions have the right to their religious beliefs and to practice those beliefs. We need to be very clear about that Constitutional “free exercise” clause. At the very same time, religious institutions do not have the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms – at least not in a democratic society. How we adjudicate these complexities will be vexing as we move forward, and faith communities need to be very careful about where they want to plant their religious freedom flag, as these recent courts cases illustrate so well.

The truly peculiar faith of Christians ought to play a role in all these social policy decisions, not by dictating what others should believe about God, but by voicing a vision of human thriving and quality of life to which all deserve access as a God-given right.

Comments

  1. You know that I had to share this Jay:) Thanks!

  2. Very well said!

  3. thatbiatch1982 says:

    A wonderfully calmly and well put argument. Of course, if we hadn’t gone down this whole silly path and just let people pay for the coverage they could afford and improve their circumstances by individual enterprise and not by relying on the commonweal to do it for them, we wouldn’t be in this pickle 🙂

  4. Perfectly said. Thank you.

  5. bellesogni says:

    This is a very good post and all the points are valid. There’s only one I would take exception to and that is: “At the very same time, religious institutions do not have the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms – at least not in a democratic society.”

    I don’t believe ANY religious institution anywhere has the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms. Unfortunately that will never change as the hidden rock religions stand on IS control of other people, namely the poor and female, which are usually one in the same.

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond! And yes, of course I agree that no religion has a “right” to violate anyone’s basic rights or freedoms. I phrased that poorly. I was trying to indicate the significance of dealing with religious pluralism in a democratic society and needed to make that clearer. Thanks!

  6. LOVE your graphic — the intersection of “Church” and “State.” Beautifully symbolic.

  7. A place, and an eternity for people on……… OMG! I thought there were better enhancments.

  8. Yay, you! Also, congrats on making Freshly Pressed so that even *more people will see/read your fabulous blog.

  9. Wonderfully said, and I thank you for this post.

  10. Jameson Crowe says:

    Religious institutions are not doing the violating here…it is the government impressing liberal policies such as free contraception for all women and Viagra for men onto everyone as part of the health care overhaul.

    • Thank you for taking time to comment, Jameson! I’m not entirely sure about your point so I don’t want to read too much into it. But I’ll just say this: when the government either provides access to or mandates access for particular services and procedures, no one is being forced to use them. So there’s no imposition of beliefs from the government on anyone. However, when religious institutions — or as I suggested in the post, even religious individuals — start trying to impose their religious beliefs on others, then we have a problem. In a democratic society, and especially a religiously pluralist one, religious institutions cannot set social policy. They can offer their voice to the policy decisions (and I hope they continue to do so, as I do!), but that’s different from insisting that everyone adopt particular religious beliefs just to have access to basic health care.

    • How are they forcing it on YOU to take the pills? At all? You aren’t being oppressed because you are being denied the opportunity to force YOUR opinions on others. My god, that’s like claiming assault and battery when someone restrains you from beating up someone else.

      • Thanks for taking the time to reply to this fascinating thread! Help me understand, though. I’m not sure what you’re targeting with your comments here. Are you distressed by religious imposition of beliefs or the government’s attempt to provide access? Sorry to be slow on the uptake here.

  11. Thank you for this insightful, thoughtful, and well-spoken post. I have laughed at this same argument in memes on Facebook, but at the same time, I sincerely agree that if you’re going to cover Viagra, birth control should also be covered. I agree with your other points as well and regard your comments on religions’ free exercise to be quite important lately, not only in this issue, but also in similar situations such as Chick-Fil-A’s recent stance on same-sex marriage and the myriad events that were spawned from it.

    Additionally, as a gay man, I am grateful for your openness and honesty. Thank you for helping to make our community more visible in the world.

  12. All good points. Not to belabor, but regarding the Virginia brouhaha on the “unnecessary vaginal probe” – what the media failed to report is, first, most female ultrasounds, whether done for pregnancy or other reasons, are often unable to accurately visualize the needed structures without a vaginal view, especially in the 2/3 of the population who are obese. After all, this is sound waves projected onto structures deep within the body to produce a picture. Secondly, if done correctly and with the patient’s cooperation, there is nothing painful nor invasive about the incorrectly named “vaginal probe” which should more correctly be called “transvaginal ultrasound.”

  13. Excellent post. I don’t know if you happened to see a related article in this month’s Texas Monthly magazine. The cover asks, Are You A Woman? (or do you care about one?) http://www.texasmonthly.com/2012-08-01/index.php My post after reading it is here. http://honiebriggs.com/2012/07/20/what-fresh-hell-is-this/

  14. What the hell is going on…you supports homosexual marriages then why God created us with different sex…it’s absurd…everyone is trying to create his own mixture….Leave something natural too….by the way Dr.Jay I appreciate your style but you are totally biased !!!

    • I really appreciate that you took time to respond, “raoxide.” I’m not entirely sure about what you want to say in your post, so let me just respond with some impressions of what you posted here. First, there’s actually a lot of data available now from biologists and geneticists and others that suggest that “sex” is not quite so easily divided into two types. That’s actually quite astonishing to me, but I’ve been trying to incorporate that into my work. Second, I worry that your invocation of what is “natural” is going to lead us down a difficult path. The “natural” world of plants and animals is wildly diverse, often confounding, and frequently violent. So if humans are supposed to mirror “nature,” I think we’re in deep trouble. That’s likely not what you meant, however. I suspect you meant that there is something “natural” about “male” and “female” individuals having sex and something “unnatural” about individuals of the “same” sex doing likewise. Actually, “nature” would suggest something different. There are many species that exhibit same-sex sexual behavior and even pair bonding. Three are even species that switch genders depending on the circumstances. That starts to sound like your worry concerning “everyone creation his own mixture.” Yup. That’s what “nature” does. So I’m not sure where that leaves your argument.

      I believe in God. I believe in a wildly creative God. As the Psalmist put it, the God who created the leviathan “just for the sport of it.” That’s a God who loves diversity and creativity, in my view. Putting theological arguments aside for the moment, we certainly don’t need government to tell anyone what he or she should believe about God. We do need government to ensure that all people have equal access to health care. Many biblical writers would agree, and so would many religious leaders today, including me.

      Thanks again for posting. Please do so again.

  15. You are awesome.

  16. This. This is what I feel and wish I was eloquent enough to explain during political debates. Excellent job.

  17. Thank you for this post. I’ll admit, I’m a heterosexual, married man who usually takes a stand for religious and conservative viewpoints (Although I’m happily married to a more open-minded, very intelligent woman who differs in opinion). I really enjoy reading other viewpoints and had no clue as to what Medicare was approving and not approving. No clue as to the fact that they approve Viagra.
    My wife will agree, I am very receptive to other people’s opinions and their take on certain beliefs.
    We have friends AND family who are gay and neither of us treat them differently. As an ordained minister, I have NEVER felt like they are less than anyone else. I realize there are groups of people who think otherwise. Sad!
    Thank you again for this article!

    • Mike, thank you so much for taking the time to reply here. I really appreciate your comments. May I suggest something? Given the heated atmosphere of political discourse around religion in this country, we need people like you to make your opinions more vocal. Would you be willing to do that? I know that you might have congregational restraints, but of course I don’t know that for sure. I do know that social progress in this country has always relied on explicitly religious voices taking a stand. Please do consider it. And let me know if I can help in that regard. Thanks.

  18. william wallace says:

    One can’t object to a need & use of viagra in doctors giving
    viagra to deal with sexual health problems in that the sexual
    part of relationships plays a major role of such relationships.

    An breakdown of the sexual part of partnerships & marriage
    but the reason why so many marriages/ relationships ending.

    Supplying free viagra preventing partnerships as marriages
    from breakdown // saves govt money / where they dont have
    to provide for the children where the father in many marriage
    breakdowns stopped providing for children / or can’t provide.

    Thus case could be put that in providing the people with free
    viagra in the long term & short term saves govt many more $.

  19. Wonderful post! Thank you so much for standing up and speaking out. I definitely have to share this.

  20. I am bery happy to have found your blog.

  21. Sarah Doyle says:

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you.

    • Thank YOU, Sarah! I believe gratitude is the primary spiritual practice shared among nearly every religious tradition. You bless me greatly with your five-fold act of gratitude, and I’m very moved by that. Thank you.

  22. lamehousewife says:

    For the record, some of the things that were added are good for women, but I don’t think all are. I also don’t think a band-aid fix called contraception will stop men from using women. It has actually proven to make it easier to use and exploit women. These chemicals and other things that women put in their bodies, I just don’t think it is healthy. It’s not natural. It’s not fixing a health problem. It may even be creating problems just like eating food that is too processed or eating food (beef, plants, chickens, etc.) that has hormones, steroids, insecticides in them. But instead, women are taking these things directly into their bodies. There just has to be a better way to get men to treat women better. This seems more like appeasement rather than taking on the real issue. I just thought I would add my voice since I am a woman, and I don’t agree with the message this sends. God bless. Have a great weekend!

  23. Thank you for writing this.

  24. This is so to the point!!! I’ve been screaming (ok, not really screaming, but telling as many people as I know) about the Viagra versus the Pill coverage for so long now and it’s amazing how many people don’t know it the case! And above and beyond the viagra/pill debate, your words were so clear and true about just letting everyone live a happy life whether or not they believe the same thing as you do. Why is this concept so hard for people? Why are so many (typically) white males concerned about whether or not I take the pill??? Does my taking the pill really affect thier life so much that they would fight for me to not have it??? I don’t think so!

  25. Reblogged this on If Jesus Had Been A Woman and commented:
    This is long, but worth the read…

  26. really love your graphic

  27. RichardJ Lester says:

    One thing is for sure and that is, government and religion will continue to cause controversy in our daily lives. It was like this 100 years ago and it will be like this in another 100 years time.

  28. Well said sir!

  29. Reblogged this on WashedUpDonuts.com and commented:
    The film Love & Other Drugs sums up this article in a more entertaining way *cough* Anne Hathaway boobies *cough* but still a great read/argument presented here. Good point made here that the v is an enhancer in the quality of life, that is, not a medical modifier that causes massive long-term repercussions. If men are brave enough to seek it’s assistance then I agree, it is their God-given right.

  30. Good post. I’m glad it got freshly pressed. There are not enough men out there commenting on how to protect women’s rights and women themselves. Wonder why that is?

    • No, there are definitely not enough men who are speaking out on this. I know many men who feel as I do about these topics, but they need to be convinced that speaking up can make a difference. Thanks for taking the time to respond here!

  31. milkmaidmom says:

    I read this, and then read it again. And if you don’t mind, I’ll share it with some friends and combatants from around the web.

    There absolutely is a war on women, but those who seek to dominate have done a fair job of keeping it in the shadows, with the exception of the examples provided. It is only with ACA that insurance companies are required to cover the most basic level of care for women. It is a sad and distressing wake-up call for women that such uproar even exists; is a pelvic exam or mammography really that threatening to men?
    Does equal coverage in healthcare for both sexes really mean that our country is on the fast track to damnation? Of course not, but to hear many politicos and theologians rant, you would think so.

    I don’t pretend to understand this “logic”, but then again I am a woman, and no doubt my hormone-laden brain is simply too strained… 😉

    • Thanks for taking the time to respond! And yes, by all means, feel free to share this. And I wouldn’t worry about not finding the logic in the political debate. It’s not logical. It reflects centuries of patriarchal domination. Such a system doesn’t run on logic but on power.

  32. “What exactly is “frivolous” when it comes to health and quality of life? That’s a key question for which I have no ready answers. But I do know this: making a distinction between men and women in that equation is wrong.”
    Simply brilliantly put. We need to put you in a position of political power to help explain how Christianity and democracy can co-exist. While I am not religious, I believe everyone is entitled to their beliefs; however, one should not force their beliefs on others. Or as you so beautiful said, “Religious institutions do not have the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms – at least not in a democratic society.”
    I am sending you a virtual hug for making my week and giving me a little more faith in humanity. I will surely pass this post along.

  33. Good Sunday moring read sir! I tend to just write funny stuff on my blog but I can deff apprecaite a man who puts work into his posts…well done;)

  34. “I really do not believe the Jesus I read about in the Gospels would approve.”
    “That would be a society more aligned with how I read the Gospels.”

    And thus, the conflict continues…

  35. I bet, if there were a drug to get rid of the scent of our menses or to eradicate mood shifts that are hormonal, both real and perceived–men would mandate that these were not just covered, but mandatory.

  36. Rev. Dr. Jay,

    Thanks for this well written and calm piece in the midst of all the rhetoric flying around

    A question for these legislators who would like women to pause and think twice with an invasive procedure, before an abortion. When will they make folks similarly pause and think, (with or without an invasive procedure) about creating a life and bringing it into this world? Does every person who brings a kid into this world, think about whether they provide a safe, healthy environment with enough resources for the kid’s development into a mature well-adjusted adult, and then take a conscious decision to go ahead and procreate? Given that we have more children being born, than abortions, should we not concentrate on the bigger issue?

    Thanks

  37. Thank you for eloquently writing just how I feel about these same issues. So glad I found you through being Freshly Pressed today; and looking forward to reading more of your work.

  38. I really think some people need to learn to mind their own damn business. All this religious stuff is starting to sound like a cult. All this fuss over a book.

  39. Thank you.

  40. Aaron Miller says:

    “We need to be very clear about that Constitutional “free exercise” clause. At the very same time, religious institutions do not have the right to violate basic human rights and freedoms – at least not in a democratic society.” – The problem is, non-reproductive sex is not a basic right.
    “And what if that included both Viagra and The Pill?” – Religious exemptions should be allowed for both.

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  1. […] than numbers, I’m intrigued that men messing with women’s bodily integrity and a robust liberal Christianity appear to have been the topics of most interest to readers of […]

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