HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Intellectual Dust-Heap of Discounted Health Myths

Welcome to the intellectual dust-heap – an archive of discredited ideas. On the one hand, the dust-heap marks the victory of scientific rigor – or maybe commonsense – over fast-held idiocies. On the other hand, the dust-heap marks the brief – sometimes not brief enough – luminescence of ideas that linger on and on.

Health care has added its own odiferous offerings to the dust-heap.

Anchoring the heap are myths that deem women biologically inferior, prone to hysteria, to irrationality, to maladies that beg for male dominance. (Medieval religious councils had wondered whether women were truly human). That notion spurred restrictions on women’s right to own property, to divorce, to vote. Centuries of medical wisdom, coupled with commonsense observations, have dumped that notion on the dust-heap. Indeed, mortality and morbidity data show women the hardier gender.

A recent variant focused on the HPV vaccine. Michelle Bachmann (a name soon to crop up in political trivia games) objected that it would lead to retardation (she reneged on that). Others saw danger in attacking this virus: promiscuity. Freed from fear of cervical cancer, women would rush into debauchery. At last, that idea went onto the dust-heap. We are vaccinating young people.

More recently, we had contraception-hysteria. Too many men painted a bizarre portrait of women: the virtuous ones had sex only when they welcomed pregnancy (or were pregnant). Religious organizations that decried contraception objected to paying for profligate employees to use it. They argued that Obamacare was violating religious liberty. Of course, data showed that almost all sexually active women, whatever their marital status, whatever their religion, used some form of contraception; yet an all-male Congressional panel discounted the statistics. Later, when a Democratic House committee invited Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke (a name also slated for political trivia games) to argue for insurance coverage of contraception, media pundits labeled her a slut. Today, that hysteria has eased. Although a few court cases linger, the law went into effect. The morally-minded congressmen have turned to other evils. Religious organizations will have time to ease the law into their mindset. The notion that contraception is both immoral and aberrant is heading for the dust-heap.

The dust-heap has myths about men. Early 20th-century eugenicists like Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso argued that physical characteristics – like the shape of a man’s head - predicted criminality. If the physiognomy from some ethnic and/or racial groups approximated that criminal model, the conclusion was unfortunate, but scientific. Mountains of genetics data later, we recognize that neither the shape of the head – nor race or ethnicity – predicts intelligence, deviance, or virtue. Another idea for the dust-heap.

The notion that miasmas – not germs, microbes, or viruses – make us sick has also gone onto the heap. Initially, skeptics fought vaccination campaigns. Even today, when polio is on the cusp of extinction, in pockets of the globe people resist the vaccinations. Fortunately, few Americans today blame disease on atmospheric vapors. Most of us vaccinate ourselves, and our children, against a growing list of diseases

We have one idea on-line for the dust-heap: the notion that health care is a workplace benefit – like vacations, sick leave, or the annual bonus. The government doesn’t guarantee everyone a vacation – why should it guarantee health care? Ironically, those conservatives who reject evolution, considering Darwin a heretic, often embrace social Darwinism. Americans who are unemployed, or don’t earn enough to buy insurance (like most people who are unemployed) should find a better job, pull themselves up by their boot-straps – a variation on the Independent Man, albeit the Sick one. The rest of the developed world has relegated that notion of health care as a workplace perk to their dust-heaps: those nations tie health to citizenship. All citizens of France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden — whatever their income, whatever their job status — has access to hospitals, physicians and medications. Maybe a decade from now, when we are as accustomed to Obamacare as our seniors are to Medicare, we will throw that Darwinian notion of the Sick Independent Man onto our dust-heap.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2012

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