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.