Of Penis Pumps and Red Herrings

As far as I know, no major religion holds as a central tenet the unvacuumability of the penis.

Like two million other viewers, I am a fan of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and I think faux-reporter Samatha Bee is pretty funny. I laughed out loud a few times last night when I saw a re-broadcast of a show in which Ms. Bee investigated a report that the federal government spent $172 million on contraptions known as “penis pumps” from 2006 to 2011. (In one choice scene, she applies a pump to her face and coaxes an engorged red projectile from her cheek.) Penis pumps are a fallback medical option for men who have trouble getting erections; compared to the $1.5 billion in Medicare funds the government spent in the last half-decade on prescriptions for Viagra and Cialis, the whirring phallus enhancers almost sound like a bargain.

Here is Samantha Bee’s full report:

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The hilarity of the segment exposes a sexist double standard: Republicans fret over the “contraceptive mandate” in Obamacarethe requirement that most employer-provided health plans include coverage for birth controlwhile raising nary an eyebrow over taxpayer-funded penis sucking devices. “Women’s selfish desire for sexual health and gynecological exams,” Ms. Bee deadpanned, “pales in comparison to men’s need to deal with erectile dysfunction.”

This critique, as far as it goes, hits a home run. Remember how some conservatives treated Sandra Fluke, then a third-year law student at Georgetown, when she testified in Congress about the importance of government-funded birth control? Rush Limbaugh unleashed on her, calling her a “slut,” and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News piled on. Ms Fluke  "wants us to pick up her lifestyle expenses," Mr. O’Reilly said. It is indeed a flight of misogynist hypocrisy to oppose reproductive health for women while raising no hackles when the government spends hundreds of millions of dollars on men who just want to rise to the occasion.

But when Samantha Bee ranges more broadly to expose the ridiculousness of challenges to the contraceptive mandatecases to be heard at the Supreme Court this coming Tuesdayshe totally misses the mark. The Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood cases ask whether for-profit businesses owned by people with religious objections to certain birth control techniques can refuse to include these in their employees' health plans. Complex moral and legal questions give these cases no easy resolution. When do principles of religious freedom permit exemptions from otherwise generally applicable laws? Do corporations count as “persons” entitled to protection under federal law and the federal Constitution? And if corporations are not to be construed as persons entitled to religious liberty, may the owners of the corporations express a First Amendment claim anyway?

One outline for a reasonable resolution to these cases (which I wrote about last fall at The Economist) acknowledges the religious liberty interest of religious employers while arguing that this interest must bow before the state’s compelling interest in promoting the sexual and reproductive health of American women.

But one thing is sure. There is no direct or indirect analogue in these religiously based objections between birth control and penis pumps. As far as I know, no major religion holds as a central tenet the unvacuumability of the penis. Penile suction devices may not have been prevalent in biblical times (though this would go a long way toward explaining how Abraham was able to father Isaac at the age of 100), but neither are they condemned in Leviticus. So no employer could raise a plausible religious objection to a health plan that includes coverage for such devices. If anything, some pious employers may like the idea: firmer penises are a better conduit for transmission of seed, and thus a recipe for employees being more fruitful and multiplying.

Where does this leave us? "The Daily Show," as usual, does a great job exposing hypocrisy through tongue-in-cheek humor. It gives us renewed reason to laugh at and oppose sexist double standards, and there is far too much of this to expose. But Samatha Bee's critique of religious opposition to the contraceptive mandatean objection which aims only at exemption, by the way, not wholesale rejectionis, well, more than a little flaccid.

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