“We do not contracept”

In the NYT on the 28th: “In Arizona, a Textbook Fuels a Broader Dispute Over Sex Education” by Rick Rojas, beginning:

Gilbert, Ariz. — The textbook, the one with the wide-eyed lemur peering off the cover, has been handed out for years to students in honors biology classes at the high schools here, offering lessons on bread-and-butter subjects like mitosis and meiosis, photosynthesis and anatomy.

But now, the school board in this suburb of Phoenix has voted to excise or redact two pages deep inside the book — 544 and 545 — because they discuss sexually transmitted diseases and contraception, including mifepristone, a drug that can be used to prevent or halt a pregnancy.

A law passed two years ago in Arizona requires schools to teach “preference, encouragement and support to childbirth and adoption” over abortion, and the school board decided that those pages were in violation of this law — even though the Arizona Education Department, which examined the book for compliance, found that they were not.

… the Gilbert school board is moving forward, trying to figure out how to remove the material in question — by way of black markers or scissors, if need be — despite resistance from parents, residents, the American Civil Liberties Union and even the district’s superintendent.

The big issue has to do with religious rights, and I will have a bit to say on that front. But my main goal here is to work my way up to the quote in the title of this posting and to look at it critically.

The textbook has been handed out for years to students in honors biology classes.

“It comes down to, it’s the law, and we need to be in compliance with the law,” said Julie Smith, a member of the Gilbert Public Schools governing board and also a parent who raised concerns about the book.

… Ms. Smith, the school board member and parent, said she had been driving her family home from church back in January when her son told her about what was in the textbook. “I almost drove off the road,” she said.

“I’m Catholic; we do not contracept,” Ms. Smith said. “It is a grave sin.” By including those pages in the curriculum, she added, “you have violated my religious rights.”

Observation 1: the back-formation contracept. From a posting of 11/28/10:

In the Pope and prostitute news (some Language Log discussion here), occurrences of the simple back-formed verb contracept (based on contraception/contraceptive) unearthed by Paul Frank and discussed on ADS-L

Observation 2: the normative present? Ms. Smith asserts: “We do not contracept”, which can be read as a generic simple present, making a claim about what Catholics do — or as a “normative present”, stipulating what Catholics are supposed to do, what they should do (an interpretation supported by the reference to contraception as a grave sin).

Normative presents, conveying an injunction or prohibition, are all over the place (“Johnny, we don’t talk with our mouths full”), and are used notably in Not a word! advice (“Ain’t is not a word”, “Fuck is not a word”, “Irregardless is not a word”), conveying an injunction against using the expression; see my 11/17/04 posting, about trepidatious as “not a word”.

Observation 3: the generic simple present? If we try to take “We do not contracept” as a generic simple present, a description of the actual practices of Catholics, we’re in trouble. Though these practices are often described in statistically dubious ways (reporting that almost all Catholic women have used artificial contraception at some time in their lives), still the facts are dramatically far from Ms. Smith’s apparent claim. From a Washington Post fact-checking site:

The [Guttmacher Institute] data … indicated there were relatively few differences among women of different religions in terms of the contraception method that was used. Evangelicals appeared more likely to rely on sterilization, but almost no one used “natural” family planning.

[Rachel K. Jones of the Guttmacher Institute] noted that there has long been data showing that Catholic women are avid users of artificial contraception.

Observation 4: First Amendment rights. The NYT piece goes on to discuss

Christine Accurso, a mother of three who moved her children out of the school district well before the issue arose but got involved nevertheless.

… Ms. Accurso reached out to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal advocacy group that has been active in conservative causes. The organization, based in Scottsdale, has been particularly busy in Arizona: It championed a bill, passed by the State Legislature but vetoed by Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, that would have allowed business owners to cite religious beliefs as a reason to deny service to same-sex couples.

Here, First Amendment rights are being used to oppose practices that some take to be against God’s Law: children should not be taught about artificial contraception, homosexuals (including same-sex couples) should be shunned — in both cases, because these practices are (in the belief of the complainants) affronts to Christ (and hence to Christians). Thus setting up a classic confrontation between freedom for religion and freedom from religion. Not to mention a confrontation between God’s Law and man’s law; it’s very common to hear people, including prominent political figures, asserting confidently that God’s Law (as they understand it) stands above, trumps, the legal system (man’s law) — though that was certainly not the intent of the Founding Fathers.

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