In protesting the Obama Administration’s new decision to treat contraception as preventative medicine, Archbishop Timothy Dolan said that he “objects to treating pregnancy as a disease.” A lot of people have ridiculed the Roman church’s stance on contraception and pointed out that some 95% of Catholics use contraception. While I understand the practical concerns that motivated the Obama administration’s decision, I ultimately share the sacramental worldview behind Archbishop Dolan’s perspective: since every human is created by God in His image, human life should never be treated as a consumer product. The only problem with Archbishop Dolan’s worldview is that it’s completely incompatible with the social forces created by capitalism. The Vatican recognizes this problem, but Dolan may be too cozy with his Ayn Rand-loving fellow Catholic politicians to discern the way that capitalism redefines pregnancy in terms of consumerism. It is sadly a very common form of ideological schizophrenia in America to be pro-life and simultaneously in love with the laissez-faire capitalism that makes life a commodity.
First of all, I should say that on a practical level, I understand the rationale behind the Obama Administration seeing contraception as preventative medicine (even if I don’t agree with it). Since birth control costs money, people who can’t afford it don’t use it. Therefore, making it free reduces the number of unwanted pregnancies, which means less abortion and fewer kids growing up in unstable environments. I understand that logic from an isolated practical standpoint, but I’m opposed to the cultural standards that are set when employers are forced to provide free birth control for their employees as a matter of mandated national health policy. It basically means a complete surrender in the major battle that needs to be fought in our culture against the commodification of sex. I’m not sure who needs to fight this battle or how exactly, but liberals don’t see the problem and conservatives don’t recognize the source of the problem.
The problem is that sex is the most thoroughly exploited marketing tool of global capitalism. Never in human history has a society’s landscape been so thoroughly saturated with sexual images, not because hippies are living out some “free love” fantasy, but because powerful industries use eroticized bodies to sell products. Sex itself becomes a product instead of a sacrament. Our bodies become products whose value we’re supposed to increase with gym memberships, personal trainers, special diets, etc. It shouldn’t surprise us that in such an environment, pregnancy could come to be viewed as a “disease” that decreases the value of the female body. Or that producing life becomes a meticulously planned process in which you space out your babies over a certain number of years much like investment portfolios in which you have to space out your IRA contributions over a period of time.
When I use the word “capitalism,” I am talking about the powerful social phenomenon that redefines objects in its environment as quantifiable value that can be exchanged — a.ka. capital. (In other words, I am not making a comparison between having a free market or a centrally controlled market, since capitalism works just as well in totalitarian China as it does in our democracy.) Capitalism makes our bodies into capital both by using eroticized bodies to sell products (which we compare to our bodies) and by convincing us that our bodies are too fat, dry, or ugly, so that we will purchase whatever products address these issues in order to increase our bodies’ capital.
Capitalism also makes our lives into capital in a different sense: through careerism. Our value as people becomes a quantifiable algorithm that combines how many degrees we have from which schools, how many years of experience in what positions, which software applications we have mastered, etc. I was talking with a friend tonight about how ridiculous it is that despite his 8 years of military experience, tons of jobs he’s applying for won’t consider him because he doesn’t have a college degree. This is because the job market takes its shape according to the credential markers that are easiest to assess objectively and turn into a form of capital rather than unquantifiable skills and character traits that a marine acquires in a war zone.
In any case, if we allow ourselves to be shaped by the forces that value us according to our waistline and our resume, then why would we see pregnancy as anything other than a disease? What contribution to our personal capital does a baby have to make? At one point in time, when we were an agricultural society, making lots of babies meant lots of future farm-hands, but in our current situation, from the perspective of capitalism, babies are purely a liability. The way it becomes morally possible to end an unborn life that has been inconveniently started is when we value above all else the capital of our body or our career which must not be compromised at all costs.
The reason that Catholics like Archbishop Dolan oppose birth control is not just because they’re old-fashioned prudes. It’s because they believe that the value of human life doesn’t come from any market; it comes from the God in whose image we are made. Birth control makes child-bearing a consumer process rather than a divine mystery. Much of our world’s sin is the product of people deciding to be consumers first and foremost rather than images of God. I don’t agree with where Dolan and the Roman church draw the line, but I agree with why they draw the line. Does that make sense? My wife and I use birth control, but I don’t think birth control should be seen as the panacea to our culture’s problems with sexuality. I also don’t think forcing Catholic hospitals to give out free condoms does anything to address the enormous problem of what global capitalism has done to human sexuality, though admittedly I don’t know what the answer is.