Saturday, April 16, 2011

French scarves and American drugs

1. The law in France banning face coverings just went into effect a few days ago. There are a few reasons I've heard for the ban. One is to prevent men from forcing women to cover themselves; the other primary reason, following the French idea of laïcité, is to keep the public sphere free of conspicuous religious displays. I've also heard people discussing the danger of public anonymity generally, but there hasn't been a ban on ski masks in even the most security-obsessed countries.

As for protecting women, a law like this is quite flawed. In a free country like France a woman has the right to leave her husband or her church for any reason — certainly being made to wear a veil against her will qualifies. She may feel that this is a dangerous thing to do, and may choose not to do it, or she might plan to do it in the right moment. A law banning her from wearing a face covering forces her hand. Although the law provides far greater punishments for those that force her to cover, it still can provide a fine for her if she does. And it means she'll certainly be asked to remove her headscarf in public by a police officer. At that point she has to choose to defy her husband or the law. She has lost her ability to choose the timing of her defiance. I hardly think this concept would be unfamiliar to anyone seriously endeavoring to protect women, so it seems likely to me that the protection of women was added to the rationale of this bill for political reasons.

So the real reason is about keeping France secular, upholding the principle of laïcité, where religion is kept to the private sphere of life. What's weird about the law, then, is that it doesn't actually mention any religion in its description of what's banned. The law's thrust is the French ideal of secular public life, but its text displays a wariness toward specifically regulating religion that's more a part of the American idea of religious freedom. As a result, the law bans all face covering in public, even when it isn't a religious expression. The contradiction becomes even starker in the exceptions to the law: face-covering during religious processions is explicitly allowed. What could be a more public expression than a religious procession?

Of course, many Muslims would say that face covering indeed isn't intended as religious expression, it isn't intended to be an outward display of religion in the same way that wearing a large cross necklace is. It does look like an expression to westerners because it looks different from the mainstream. Well, authorial intent is dead, is it not? If the state imposes a law that bans a minority religious practice by way of understanding it as an unwelcome public expression of religion, then explicitly protects the majority religion's traditional public religious expressions, the state is clearly acting in a racist way. It's promoting xenophobia, not laïcité.

2. I heard on the radio a couple days ago the story of injectable progesterone, which is used by some pregnant women to reduce the risk of premature birth in high-risk situations. The drug company producing it had stopped in 2000, but as there was still demand compounding pharmacies continued to make it and sell it at very reasonable prices.

Then a new drug company got FDA approval to sell the drug, set the price at about a thousand times what the pharmacies charge, and announced that they'd press changes against anyone else that continued to sell it.

What's weird is that they probably would have got away with it if they'd only tried to set the price, say, ten times as high as existing sources. Apparently the FDA is perfectly willing to give companies exclusive rights to sell products that are already being adequately produced by the market at large.

That's just what happens when the state grants monopolies to private companies. The enforcement power of the state (and, specifically, a part of the state that isn't held to much public accountability) has to protect the profit interests of businesses. This story is something like a microcosm of the American health care system — if only it was this simple!

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