Musings on Birth Control

“If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

– Justice Brennan, writing for the majority in Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438, 453 (1972)

I’ve been meaning to post about birth control, but the issue seemed to die down after the Blunt Amendment failed in the Senate a couple of weeks ago. That bill would have amended the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to allow employers not to cover care that was “counter to the[ir] religious beliefs or moral convictions.” It was clearly aiming at birth control, though the wording left it open for someone who finds over-eating to be morally offensive to refuse to cover Type 2 diabetes care. The House GOP retreated from pushing anything similar, because they finally realized that it was not a winner for them, and the media emphasis switched to Rush Limbaugh and Sandra Fluke and it seemed birth control might be safe for the time being…

Then this happened: Arizona proposed a measure that not only allows employers to decide whether birth control will be covered, it also allows them to fire employees who use birth control at all, even if those employees pay for it out-of-pocket. Wrap your brain around that for a moment. If the government has no right to intrude into your decision to use birth control, what possible argument could be made for your BOSS having that right?

Birth control is fundamental to women’s rights. Contrary to pop-culture mythos, women have worked outside the home since the dawn of specialization. Poor women, at least, have always worked. Middle class women in the U.S. joined the work force in droves during World War II, and never looked back (in part because the economy shifted enough to pretty much require two incomes for a family to survive, but that’s another post entirely). Women had the right to vote from 1920 onward. Yet the massive change in attitudes and expectations for women didn’t happen until the late 1960s, early 1970s. You don’t have to trust the accuracy of Mad Men to know that even 40 years ago, blatant sexism and sexual harassment were casually accepted. What changed? Women finally had access to effective contraception. The pill was introduced in 1960, and two Supreme Court cases, Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Eisenstadt v . Baird (1972), ensured that no state could outlaw the sale of contraception. That one, incredibly important, change allowed women to finally imagine – much less attain – lives that weren’t defined by their roles as mothers. We could choose when we wanted to start having sex, and when we wanted to stop having babies. We could, finally, fully express a sexuality that didn’t fall into “good girl/mom” or “easy girl/slut” paradigms. The pill gave us ownership of our sexuality and our bodies.

You and me both, lady...

There is a loud and powerful fringe in the Republican party that honestly wants to go back to the “simpler” time before the sea changes of the sexual revolution. Whether because of true piety or misplaced nostalgia, they see only excess and licentiousness, where we see the foundations of women’s equality in and out of the home. Women have used birth control for thousands of yearsWe have understood that sexuality is a fundamental aspect of our being, and that it demands expression even when having a child is out of the question. It just took 4,000 years before birth control was reliable enough to change the world. We cannot let politicians pander that away.

In the 1960s, the debate was over whether states could make it illegal for a married couple, or unmarried persons, to purchase birth control. The conversation now is about who pays for it. If highly effective birth control were available over-the-counter, this would be a very different argument. Ridiculous medical costs and the requirement of a prescription mean that many many women cannot afford the pill if their medical insurance doesn’t cover it. Restrictions on insurance coverage act as very real barriers to women’s access to birth control. Planned Parenthood cannot carry the burden alone, especially when its funding is also under attack. The Blunt Amendment, and the insane legislation proposed in Arizona, both underscore the ridiculousness of our current healthcare system. Why should your boss have anything to say about what coverage you have? Haven’t we passed the era of the company town? Corporations already buy and sell our politicians. They already decide our fates in so many ways, large and small. Are we really going to let them control our sexuality, our relationships, our families?

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