I like politics, because I like policy.  While I think there’s a lot of times when more rules gum up rather than smooth out the processes in our Country, there are some functions Government is just better at delivering than others.  For example, we all pay taxes to support a military, government roads, and more, because government can provide that mutual benefit in a way that individuals cannot.

The current debate over whether the government health care law should cover contraceptives and who should pay for it has spawned all sorts of vitriol, the likes of which I find truly shocking.  Rush Limbaugh’s recent dust-up and ludicrous comments about Sandra Fluke are just the logical conclusion to a debate where far too many emotions and far too few facts are involved.

Let’s try to look at the problem rationally, if that’s possible.

(The following is  a bit reductio ad absurdum, but stick with it for a minute…)

Young people, men and women, often engage in sexual activity which can result in babies, ie. future tax payers.   This can be a good thing.  However, if those people are not yet financially and emotionally prepared to raise these future taxpayers on their own, problems arise.  They may not be as upwardly mobile as they may have been if they put off a family until they were ready.  They might even require additional government safety net assistance, ranging from health coverage for the child, welfare, subsidized housing, food stamps, etc.  This costs more money than contraception.  Additionally, children brought into a less than loving family can have additional emotional and educational problems that may make them less than the picture-perfect citizen we all hope they’d be.  This puts a further toll on the social fabric of our Country, which no one wants to see, either, let alone the financial costs involved.

So let’s make the assumption that the problem to society lies not in people who have babies and a family when they are ready for one, but in those who have a family before they are ready.  Let’s assume teen pregnancy falls into this category more frequently than not, (even though we acknowledge the same thing can happen to other young people not quite ready to have a family)  and let’s take a look at the facts.

The Guttmacher Institute reports that teen pregnancy rates are at all-time lows, lower than in 1972. The abortion rate is way down.  The birth rate is way down.  It looks like we’re doing a great job reducing the number of children having children. The Institute also reports that while there was a big drop in teens having sex between 1992 and 2002, the rates have remained about the same since that large drop.  Teens not using contraceptives have a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within the first year of having sex; and the majority of sexually experienced teens (78% of females and 85% of males) used contraceptives the first time they had sex. 59% of teen pregnancies end in birth, with 27% choosing abortion and 14% resulting in miscarriage.

Let’s also assume one way to prevent the problem of teen pregnancy is to stop teens from getting pregnant.  This requires either teens to stop having sex altogether, which the statistics show only works for a percentage of the population, or to prevent pregnancy from occurring when teens have sex anyway, which requires contraceptive use or extremely good luck.

Teens are clearly getting the message that early sex is not necessarily a good thing, and if you are going to do this anyway, contraceptives are key.  The rates of teen sex are level, meaning all the worries about the increasingly graphic nature of the media landscape with increased internet access would seem to be a waste of energy, as seen through the lens of whether or not it’s encouraging teens to have more sex.  Since 2002, the levels have remained static, meaning all the social engineering our politicians are trying to do is having no real effect on behavior at a macroscopic level.  Some teens will persist in having sex regardless of what you say.  Seems to me the logical choice is to make their pursuit of this behavior as least costly to the rest of us as possible, and contraceptives are a great choice for that.  This seems just simple and logical, like restricting smoker’s opportunity to give the rest of us lung cancer by limiting their ability to expose the unsuspecting to second hand smoke in public places.

Given the figures by the Guttmacher Institute, it’s pretty logical to conclude that a) some teens will continue to have sex; b) unprotected sex is a relative form of birth control, meaning that if you continue, sooner or later, you will have another relative! c) Despite the religious factions worrying that we are on the verge of a moral Armageddon, things seem to be pretty normal and predictable in the real world.  The fear of impending social collapse seems unlikely, at least when viewed through the lens of teen sex and pregnancy.

The debate about health care and coverage of contraceptives becomes a “religious and moral debate” stemming from whether or not religious and religious affiliated institutions, who provide employer health insurance to employees, should be forced to cover birth control as well as other plan benefits.  The argument goes that some religious institutions regard “recreational” sex as a sin, and they shouldn’t have to support benefits that prevent non-procreative sex.  (I think this means they also should not cover Viagra or other erectile dysfunction medications which clearly are designed to encourage recreational sexual activity, but I digress.)

I think this is less a case of government mandating a code of behavior, which is how religious institutions seem to cast it, than religion deciding to enter the public sphere of providing for the health and welfare of a portion of the population ( those in its health plans) and wanting to cherry pick what they want to pay for and what they choose not to.

The point of having  universal coverage is that we all bear the costs, in some way, of everyone’s aggregated behavior, the same way we all pay for the military and Congress and the national highway system.

If I got to cherry pick what I did and did not want to pay for with my taxes or health care dollars, I’d make different choices, too.  Maybe I wouldn’t want to buy certain things for the military, in order to discourage them from going to war in the first place.  Perhaps I might decide not to pay my congressman, because he chose not to vote the way I wanted him to, so I’ll dock his salary.  Should I be able to deny coverage for people with lung cancer because I have never smoked?  Should I deny coverage for those with liver cirrosis caused by too much alcohol consumption because I rarely drink? Should we decide to disallow coverage for people with end-stage terminal diseases, because it’s a waste of money if they are just going to die anyway?

The problem with cherry-picking coverage is that there’s always something as individuals we don’t want to pay for.  We all have great and cogent arguments about what’s wrong and if people just lived they way we thought was best, Utopia would reign supreme.

But guess what?  This is the real world.  And as one of the founding fathers stated so eloquently, we can hang together or all hang separately.  This country is supposed to be a Union.  We fought a huge war in the 1800’s that tested that Union, and we decided then we were better together than apart.  While we can disagree on specifics, we need to begin to agree in principal that we are the UNITED states, and that we have a mutual responsibility to each other in many respects.  Together we can do great things.  Individually, it’s much harder.

To that end, we have to all do our part to make the public debate more rational and reasonable.  This means speaking out when things are clearly over the line, like Rush’s comments.  (His comments were so silly, ranging from what appeared to be a distinct lack of understanding of how hormonal birth control works, to the suggestion that if we were paying for it, we should be able to see it in use.  To this end, I think if Rush thinks this really was a good idea, he should show us video of his use of whatever medication he is on, ranging from lipitor- show us those cheeseburgers! to Viagra (On second thought,  no one wants to see that- thanks anyway) to his famous abuse of narcotics (the Youtube videos would be amusing to say the least.)

Let’s take the absurdity out of the debate, and start talking about the things that matter much more.  Let’s talk about preparing our children for a job market that is still being invented.  Let’s talk about how to leverage technology to make our lives better, and how to create supportive communities online and offline.  Regardless of your religious or political beliefs, let’s decide to be humans and show our humanity more than our callous nature to each other.  We’re humans first, before any other labels are given to us.  Let’s keep it that way.  Let’s be human first and everything else second.  We’ll all be better off.