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The Sensate Paving of Western Civilization

As the Supreme Court considers the Obamacare Contraception Mandate, it is worth considering how we arrived at this point in Western Civilization where women’s “health care” could be considered by the federal government to consist exclusively of the “right” to be provided the means – either through contraception or abortion – not to have children.

The answer begins with the Enlightenment, which, for all its manifest benefits, marked a turn away from The West’s traditional moral code to a humanist, aspirational focus.

Over the course of the following two centuries, Western Civilization muddled through, unmoored from its moral foundations but nonetheless pushing forward with its humanist pursuits.  And by the opening of the twentieth century, the old moral order was in the process of being replaced by a more materialist, or “sensate” society.

This phrase – “sensate society” – can be traced to Pitirim Sorokin, the founder of Harvard’s Sociology Department, who argued that all civilizations pass through three stages:  the ideational stage, which is organized around the transcendental and in which faith is the most prevalent of human values; the idealist stage, in which human aspirations are recognized, but the society operates through the rules and institutions of the established order and its moral framework; and the sensate stage, in which the shared identities, the taboos, the traditional customs, and the morals of a society collapse, leaving it entirely dependent upon and obsessed with the materialistic.

In the mid-1960s, the Baby Boom generation had destroyed the last of the traditional moral prohibitions, those surrounding sex, which had, throughout Western history been one of the most enduring touchstones of social dissent.

The next quarter century saw various fits and starts in sexual “liberation,” along with dramatic increases in a variety of sex-related social travails.  And by the 1990s, sex and the supremacy of sexual gratification, which had long prevailed in the generational subculture, had become the ascendant value of the broader culture.

In the midst of this cultural milieu and indeed because of it, the political Left found a new champion, Bill Clinton, who shared their dreams, their aspirations, and even their failings.  Most importantly, though, he shared their moral code.   Indeed, Clinton’s election solidified the clash between the old, idealist society and the new, sensate society.

At about this same time, a revolution was taking place in the funding of female candidates for federal office.  EMILY’s List, which was founded by IBM heiress Ellen Malcolm, led this effort, and, in the process, condensed “women’s issues” into those revolving around abortion and reproduction exclusively.  Not coincidentally, Malcolm was aided in this effort by Christie Hefner, the daughter of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and, in turn, the Chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises, Inc.  It is both interesting and telling that while Ms. Hefner was saving Playboy from ?nancial ruin, in part by turning it into a global “multimedia” porn operation, she was also partnering with Malcolm at both the National Women’s Political Caucus and at EMILY’s List to direct “feminist” attention speci?cally and aggressively toward abortion rights and away from other areas of traditional feminist interest – such as pornography.

Taken in conjunction, these three developments – the maturation of the Boomer sexual ethos, the election of an open sexual-culture warrior, and the explicit and deliberate direction of “feminist” efforts away from pornography and to issues like abortion and birth control – profoundly changed the American political environment and indeed American society.  Most notably, with respect to the health care law, the three served to wipe out much of the work of classical feminism, reducing the movement to the very narrow and rather pathetic end of keeping abortion legal.

They also served to convince the Democratic political establishment that women’s votes could be easily and cheaply bought simply by delivering “pro-Choice” rhetoric and a few concessions on other related policy matters.  And hence the promulgation of the contraception mandate during an election that, for many Democrats, hinged on the fiction of the Republicans’ “war on women.”