The Right's War on Contraception
The world was riveted when Natalie Holloway went missing in Aruba last year. Dan Brown's best-selling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," mesmerizes readers and movie-goers by spinning the tale around how Mary Magdalene went missing from Christian theology except as a reformed harlot.
In an equally riveting mystery, women have disappeared from the story of attacks on contraception.
When the New York Times Magazine published a watershed story in early May, "The War on Contraception," the Times Web site noted it was their most e-mailed story of the day. Of course it was snapped up. What rational person can believe that any but crackpots could oppose using birth control to prevent pregnancy?
I tore into the article hoping it would unearth and expose the true reproductive rights battle lines. This is a struggle often masquerading as a moral controversy. At its roots, however, it's about sex and power; whether women will be allowed to keep striving for an equal place in society or confined, as much as possible, to the nursery.
The author, Russell Shorto, did a fine job detailing the dueling philosophies of abstinence-only sex education versus comprehensive sex education. Comprehensive programs teach decision-making skills and provide medically accurate information, including facts about abstinence, sex, relationships and childbearing. Abstinence-only programs exhort unmarried people to "just say no."
Primal Motive Missed
My high hopes for Shorto's article plummeted when he failed to discuss the underlying, almost primal, opposition to women's equality inherent in both the abstinence-only movement and the attacks on birth-control access.
Shorto also failed to discuss the female casualties of this contraception battle. A clue to their whereabouts can be found in a Guttmacher Institute study, "A Tale of Two Americas for Women," published the same week as the Shorto piece.
Guttmacher finds a 29 percent rise in unintended pregnancies and abortions since 1994 among low-income women whose access to low-cost contraception has declined dramatically as a result of the attacks on contraception. For example, funding for Title X of the Public Health Services Act -- the backbone of subsidized family planning health services for low-income uninsured women -- is less than half what it was in 1980 when adjusted for inflation. The program faces a pitched battle in Congress every year just to maintain level funding.
Meanwhile, funding for abstinence-only programs that provide no health services has catapulted from near-zero to almost equal Title X. It's no surprise then that low-income women feel the heel of this particular anti-woman boot.
Among higher-income women, in contrast, unintended pregnancies and abortions have declined by a significant 20 percent. They can afford the rising costs of birth control including very effective newer methods such as injectable contraceptives. They have greater access to uncensored information on the Web and the wherewithal to drive across town to get their prescription filled when their neighborhood pharmacist refuses.
Restrictions on access fall most heavily on young and low-income women who are the most vulnerable, have the fewest resources with which to advocate for themselves and are thus politically speaking invisible.
Birth control frees women to forge their own paths by separating sex from procreation. This strikes fear into those who, underneath it all, oppose the increased social power women attain from expanded equality and justice. Proof of this?
James Leon Holmes, nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate to the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Arkansas, says it straight out in an article: "It is not coincidental that the feminist movement brought with it artificial contraception ... To the extent we adopt the feminist principle that the distinction between the sexes is of no consequence and should be disregarded in the organization of society and the Church, we are contributing to the culture of death." His stated solution is that " ... the wife is to subordinate herself to her husband."
The Times article suggests that organized opposition to birth control was motivated by Supreme Court decisions legalizing birth control (Griswold v. Connecticut, 41 years ago this month) and abortion (Roe v. Wade in 1973) as though it was only women's recent and brazen push for this form of reproductive control that ignited this conflict. In truth, contraception has been a political football in the United States for a long time.
In 1913, Margaret Sanger, founder of the American birth control movement, wrote a sex education column for The Call newspaper, entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." That is, she wrote it until a warrant was issued for her arrest for violating the Comstock Laws, which made it a crime to circulate "obscenity" through the mail. In place of the column, The Call's editors ran an empty box reading: "What Every Girl Should Know -- nothing, by order of the U.S. Post Office!"
The laws were named for Anthony Comstock, whose Society for the Prevention of Vice rammed through state and federal laws against contraception and even information about contraception beginning in 1873. Some of these laws remained on the books well into the 1970s. Comstock boasted that he had destroyed hundreds of tons of "lewd and lascivious material," including 60,000 "obscene rubber articles." You might call them condoms.
Comstock is still around today in the form of people who can't tell the difference between medical information and pornography, between healthy sexuality and promiscuity. He's also around in the form of people who don't trust women to handle authority.
Just last week, for instance, when the Episcopal Church elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori its first female presiding bishop, a fellow priest who opposes the ordination of women altogether, voiced this fundamental prejudice.
"Just like we can't use grape juice and saltines for communion because it isn't the right matter, we do not believe the right matter is being offered here," he said.
What makes this offended reverend "the right matter" and Schori the "wrong matter?" Is this weird his-and-hers code for genitalia? Roe gave those who are basically opposed to women's equality a new political whipping girl. Many leading pundits and commentators assumed the opposition was based on religious beliefs and was limited to abortion. But lately they have begun clambering out from under their anti-contraception rock and the battle lines are becoming clearer than ever.
A woman's bodily integrity, her moral autonomy, her health, her very life depend on whether she has access not just to the right to reproductive freedom but also to the health care and education services that make rights meaningful. Circumstances do not change that principle. Nor is the human right to reproductive self-determination divisible. You either have it or you don't. There's nothing mysterious about that.