Christian Conservatives vs. Sex: The Long War Over Reproductive Freedom
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The aggressive nature of the joint legislative and sectarian assault on contraceptives dismayed many birth control advocates.
“I am completely shocked that contraception is being made to seem as if it’s a controversial issue,” said the Rev. Debra W. Haffner, president of the Religious Institute, a Connecticut-based group that examines the intersection of theology and human sexuality. “The fact is, 99 percent of heterosexual, sexually active adults use contraception. More than nine in 10 American adults support the availability of contraception.”
Haffner noted that support for this issue used to be bipartisan. As a member of the House of Representatives during the 1970s, future president George H.W. Bush championed family planning initiatives, and President Ronald W. Reagan signed them into law during the 1980s.
Why the change now?
“I think what is going on now has virtually nothing to do with contraception,” Haffner, a Unitarian Universalist minister, told Church & State. “It has to do with both the Catholic bishops and the extreme evangelical right looking for new wedge issues to continue to try to impose their beliefs about sexuality on the general public. I believe that the Catholic bishops are trying to do through legislation what they’ve been unable to do from their pulpits, which is influence the way their congregants enjoy their sexuality.”
She added that many conservative religions maintain that sex exists only for procreation, a view they seek to have reflected in secular law.
“The pill enabled people through technology to enjoy sexual pleasure without the possibility of reproduction, separating sexual behavior from procreation,” Haffner said. “In today’s world, it’s not just a pill but patches and rings and implants and lots of modern methods of sterilization that are effective. There’s an affirmation of sexuality that now exists that to a very small group of people is very frightening.”
Although, as Haffner points out, birth control comes in many forms, most of the discussion centers around oral medication that has become so ubiquitous it is called simply “the pill.”
The pill remains the most popular form of contraceptive in America. In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 82 percent of all women who had sex with men reported that they had been on the pill at some point in their lives. Nationwide, about 11 million women of child-bearing age were estimated to be on the pill at that time.
The pill, condoms, intrauterine devices, permanent sterilization and other forms of birth control have become so common and popular that it’s easy for people today to forget how hard they once were to get. Easy access to contraceptives is the exception in America. For most of our history, a potent combination of church and state blocked not only access to birth control but access to information about birth control. Amazingly, some forces today want to go back to those days.
For most of human history, birth control was unreliable, erratic and often dangerous to women. Some women used wool, cotton, linen and other materials to block the cervix. Various potions were also said to function as spermicide, although much of this was folklore. (One early preparation consisted of crocodile dung and honey.)
Early condoms, often made of linen or animal bladders, were used during the Roman Empire and into the Middle Ages. For the hundreds of years that followed, not many other options were available.
The discovery of the vulcanization of rubber by Charles Goodyear, a process that was patented in 1844, led to the introduction of rubber condoms in America. Early rubber condoms were thick, brittle and often unreliable, but by 1920 Latex condoms had been invented, and their use quickly caught on.