When health coverage doesn't include birth control – Oh, wait a minute...

I’ve been thinking about this season’s weird contrast between the continuing advance of gay rights – with Maryland’s legislature becoming the latest to approve same-sex marriage – and the sudden re-emergence of debate over whether women should be entitled to contraception as part of standard health care. We seem to be living in a bizarro-world of strange contradictions. What’s behind it?

An answer came courtesy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the religious eminence grise of South Africa, who told an illuminating story of how prejudices get baked into our psyches without our realizing it. Taking a post-apartheid airline flight one day, he noticed both pilots were black, and felt pride and pleasure in that fact – until the plane encountered some heavy turbulence, upon which Tutu felt himself worrying that there was no white person in the cockpit.

Could the black pilots could make it through the storm? Decades of being hammered with the idea of black inferiority had left even this highly thoughtful leader with an unconscious prejudice against his own people.

Religious objections to contraception have been baked into people’s brains in a similar way. Indoctrination with the idea that the life of a potential human being is sacred from the moment of conception often develops into a conviction so deep that it overrides the notion that women should be able to decide what they do with their bodies and (hence) their own lives. In effect, a prejudice comes about in favor of hypothetical children and against their potential mothers. Though this prejudice against women may be “accidental,” like racial prejudice it is rooted in burned-in ideas. And like racism, these ideas and feelings go back centuries. For better or worse, they’re part of the mosaic of culture.

Same-sex marriage is different. Homophobia goes back a long way, of course, but the idea of gay marriage is a pretty modern one. Those who oppose it have formed their convictions only recently, because the concept didn’t exist in mainstream cultural dialogue until the latter days of the modern gay rights movement. So the opposition, while broad and sometimes deep, may not be as fundamental.

Anti-abortion and anti-contraception forces, on the other hand, have been with us for ages, deeply rooted and stalwartly arrayed against modern manifestations of women’s rights, and baked into the bones of those who are steered by religious orthodoxy. And thus it is that the old ideas coexist with the new.