The Wrong Recipe for Ending The Culture Wars? A Response to Saletan

Jodi Jacobson

In today's New York Times, William Saletan offers a misguided prescription for ending the "culture" wars and perpetuates the myths of "moral" versus "practical."

In his op-ed in today’s New York Times, William Saletan offers what appears to be a simple prescription for "ending the culture wars," by offering proposals for birth control, abortion, and gay marriage.

His basic premise:

"Our moral debates have become stale and fruitless.  The reason is that we’ve pitted morality against practicality.  These two principles need each other.  Let’s marry them"

I will leave aside the issue of gay marriage, about which I agree with Saletan’s conclusion.  Extend to all who want to marry the right to marry. 

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But I disagree with the basic premises underlying the rest of Saletan’s piece and found much of it deeply troubling. 

In suggesting President Obama take on the issue of abortion in his address to Congress, Saletan says that to change the debate on contraception and abortion, President Obama will have to:

"tell two truths that the left and the right don’t want to hear: that morality has to be practical and that practicality requires morals."

He later states:

"Our challenge is to put these two issues [abortions and birth control] together. For
liberals, that means taking abortion seriously as an argument for
contraception. … Reproductive-health counselors must speak bluntly to women who are
having unprotected sex. And as Mr. Obama observed last year, men must
learn that ‘responsibility does not end at conception.’"

To be honest, I found this insulting, for several reasons.  First, women’s rights advocates and reproductive health providers have always put these two issues together.  It’s called "prevention" and it is the core of reproductive health services that include efforts to prevent unintended pregnancies, prevent infections, assist people who wish to get pregnant, offer pre-natal and maternal care, and much more.

What exactly does Mr. Saletan think reproductive health counselors do, but guide people toward protected sex, help them find the methods they need and which will work best for them, and counsel them on correct and consistent use?  Has he ever been in a clinic and availed himself of the services?  I have.  Many times.  It might be time for him to take a trip to one. 

Yet Mr. Saletan wraps up his argument in a neat little set of statistics meant to show that access to birth control is not the problem, but rather the cavalier attitudes of women having sex. 

I beg to differ.

Real access to birth control and to accurate information is a huge problem in this country.  Given the current climate, everything from condoms to emergency contraception is contested by the Catholic Church and various entities on a daily basis.  Hormonal methods and IUDs are labeled as abortifacients, and many anti-choice organizations don’t recognize the medical definition of pregnancy as defined by professional medical societies in the US and internationally.  We have come out of 8 years of efforts to deny women access to primary health services, and out from under an Administration that tried everything it could to hamstring service delivery and to misinform the public, including having the Centers for Disease Control put out inaccurate information on condoms and on abortion and breast cancer; giving a pass to Senator Frist–a medical doctor–when he claimed on a news program that HIV could be transmitted through saliva; delays in approval of emergency contraception; delays in approval of waivers for Medicare coverage of family planning; and now regulations that allow any provider to deny people access to legal services for any reason.  These are but a few examples.

It gets a little harder each day to deliver services to prevent unintended pregnancy
and perform your duties when you might at any moment have your clinic
bombed, have false clients with hidden video cameras telling lurid stories to try to entrap you, or when, as will begin this Wednesday, February 25th, the
anti-choice movement begins a "40-days-for-Life" series of Lenten
protests outside of clinics, many of which don’t even provide abortions,
but do provide birth control.  When discussing this with the head of a
clinic in the midwest today, I asked (knowing the answer but I had to
ask), "if you are not providing abortions, why are they protesting

Answer: "They object to birth control."

How many people do you think will end up with unintended pregnancies
in the next 40 days who otherwise might not have gotten pregnant if
they did not need riot gear to enter a clinic?

Is this moral?

And let’s at least mention a much-discussed issue on Rewire: we’ve spent $1.5 billion the past 10 years on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that have been completely discredited, tell girls it is their fault if they are raped and ensure that girls who are "prepared for sex" (e.g. birth control) are made out to be dirty, slutty, and immoral.

Think they are going to raise the issue of birth control when the time comes?

Saletan does not address or critique these policies in depth, he simply glides over them as "a second front in the culture wars" on the way to blaming women, providers, and liberals for, again, being too cavalier about and not recognizing the moral dimensions of abortion.

Abortion, he says, isn’t about:

"a shortage of pills or condoms. It’s a shortage of cultural
and personal responsibility. It’s a failure to teach, understand, admit
or care that unprotected sex can lead to the creation — and the
subsequent killing, through abortion — of a developing human being."

This is the piece I find most insulting. And if Saletan wanted to bridge some sort of divide, he lost me right there.

Why?  Because this is not about pitting "morals" against

It is about fundamental moral differences. 

The real issue is that when we talk about "morals," we only ever posit one set of morals in all of this,
the "morals" of the ultra-right, of fundamentalist Christian
evangelicals and of the Catholic Church (as opposed to the Catholic
laity who use contraception and turn to abortion at the same rates as
anyone else in the population).  

In fact, contrary to what Saletan says, part of the problem is that the issues of
sex, birth control, reproduction, sexuality, and abortion are always
portrayed as "moral" versus "practical" or as "lifestyle" issues.  Put it this way and it is a quick slide down the slippery slope to "you have no morals if
you are only thinking of your own practicality."  You can substitute the words convenience, needs,
career, lifestyle….you get the picture.  This is the argument of the far right. They are moral, we are hedonistic and "practical" about the consequences.

However, there are those of us who believe that abortion is a moral choice. That it is not
"killing another human being" to have an abortion before a fetus is viable.  That there are moral reasons for late-term abortions if a woman’s life or health is in danger or for other reasons about which the decision should be made between the woman, her doctor, and her God, if she has any. 

There are those of us—women, men, people of faith—who believe women
are indeed moral actors in deciding to have an abortion, and who have moral
positions on positive approaches to sex, sexuality, and contraception.  These moral
positions just don’t comport with the
"other" moral positions and they were not the moral positions of the powerful over the past 8 years. 

But the premise of a pluralistic society is that we have the right to make moral decisions based on our personal beliefs in contested
areas such as sex and reproduction in which we don’t want to follow
someone else’s God or party line. 

The real problem, I would argue, contrary to Saletan, is the immorality of a set
of actors who have used these issues as a way to increase their power
and their own flocks, and on the way, enrich themselves. 

I am not claiming that good people in good faith do not have difficulty with the issue of abortion.  I do claim that they have no right to decide such a personal issue for someone else, and especially not in a climate in which the very preventive tools and services necessary to reduce unintended pregnancies have become so contested.  And I do dismiss those who I see as being there more for political gain than anything else.

Saletan either does not understand this or wishes not to address it.

The real problem here is that we are simply unable as a nation to have a conversation about what
it would mean to have healthy, safe, consensual sexual lives as a normal aspect of human development. We deny
people basic services.  We mislead adolescents and young adults.  We let women suffer health consequences of lack
of care without admitting any social responsibility.  And then we blame
the women.  I call that immoral and unethical.

So let’s be practical and moral.  Let’s zero out the abstinence-only-until-marriage funding that has fed the coffers of groups who undermine effective prevention and responsible decision-making by perpetuating misinformation and using fear, shame, and ideology to mislead adolescents.  The President needs to do this in his budget this week.  Let’s work to pass–this spring–the Prevention First Act, the Responsible Education About Life (REAL Act), the Affordable Birth Control Act, the Medicaid waiver about which the Republicans so bombastically grand-standed during the stimulus debate.  Let’s ensure that all government funded reproductive health services get full funding without delay, in this next appropriations bill.  Let’s get rid of the ridiculous regulations put in place by HHS before Bush left office. Let’s condemn the misinformation campaign that as dominated the debate for too long and which is enabled by silence of those who talk morality about abortion but never call out the actors who misrepresent the issues.  Address gender-based violence, stigma, and discrimination against women, and against gay, lesbian, and transgender persons.  This strategy is moral because it fulfills the real needs of individuals and groups who need access to health care and services, improves health and saves lives, and practical because it enables people to make responsible decisions in their own contexts, and also because it saves us all money in health care and social costs down the line.  Prioritize these and other efforts, and engage a healthy national conversation about sex as part of life, and I assure you unintended pregnancies and infections will decline.

So I think what President Obama most needs to say is what he should have said during the stimulus debate: 

Reproductive health care is basic health care.  It is a personal issue, an economic and family issue, and a social issue.  We need to focus on prevention based on evidence of what works, and honor the diverse views of a pluralistic society.  Therefore, I will no longer allow this issue to become politicized, nor allow policy to be based on misinformation spread about birth control, reproductive health services or sexual health education.  We all want to reduce unintended pregnancies.  By doing so, we can reduce the number of abortions.  But understand that women will still need access to safe abortion services and must be respected as the moral agents in choosing what is best for them.  We must respect each other as moral actors.  We must understand that our strength lies in the plurality of views in this country and the fundamental right to freedom of religion.  We can not allow these principles to be further eroded.  Therefore, I pledge as a first step to lay the basic foundation for "common ground" by creating the policies and the funding needed to expand access to the services and information needed by all people to make responsible choices about sex and reproduction.  

Recognizing diversity of moral choices and positions, and putting prevention first despite the outcry of the powerful minority, is the only way to move beyond the "tired debates" of the past.

[This post was updated at 7:18 am February 23rd.]


Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

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Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”