The birth control debate: enough is enough

Ours has always been a male-driven society, and women, for far too long, have been controlled by a patriarchy all too willing to maintain its dominance. But strong and visionary women have fought long and hard to secure fundamental rights for women in our society, vastly improving the well-being not only of women, but of children, society as a whole, and even men themselves.

We are now embroiled in a national debate pitting women’s freedom and rights against so-called religious liberty. While our society must protect the freedom of all individuals to hold their own religious beliefs, we cannot allow those beliefs to limit or eradicate the basic human rights of any individual, male or female. The willingness of our political and religious leaders to do just that for the sake of political expediency demands that women take notice and stop being polite – it is time women got seriously fed up with our society’s willingness to throw them under the bus and start making some serious demands for the respect we so deserve.

According to the nonprofit sexual health research organization the Guttmacher Institute, 99% of sexually active American women have, at some point, used birth control – including 98% of Catholic women who have done so in violation of their religion’s official church doctrine[i]. It is important to keep in mind, however, that this violation is of man-made rules only – and by “man-made,” I mean devised by that segment of the population biologically immune from contracting pregnancy – and not against the dictates of God, for nowhere has any god of any religion expressly prohibited the use of birth control. In light of the increasing debate surrounding this topic, women must stand firm with a collective voice that insists we, not men, maintain the right to determine if, and when, we embark on the journey of motherhood.

Women’s lives, through no choice of their own, are infinitely complicated by the reality of human conception. Women, when sexually active, risk becoming pregnant, a potential complication afflicting no man. While many women welcome pregnancy, it is, nevertheless, a life-altering reality certain to impact every facet of their existence. From their physical health, well-being, and very survival to their emotional and psychological vitality….From their ability to pursue continued education and learning to their ability to obtain, retain, or advance in paid employment or a career….From their economic viability to their chosen pursuit of life goals, dreams, and accomplishments….From their relationships with family and friends to their ability to maintain any semblance of independence and autonomy… becoming a mother impacts a woman’s life dramatically. In countries such as Niger, where women bear on average 7.52 children, women’s life expectancy stands at 55 years[ii]. Protecting women’s physical and psychological health and well-being demands women have control over this most personal and impactful decision. Furthermore, if women are to play any role in our society aside from mothering, birthing and caring for child after child á la Michelle Duggar, they must have unhindered access to preventative reproductive health care, and it must be their decision whether or not to utilize it.

If a woman is not physically, emotionally, psychologically, or economically prepared to become a mother, some will argue, she should simply refrain from sexual activity. While that too is a decision that women must have the right to determine for themselves, it is unfortunately not that simple. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly one in five women has had a man rape or attempt to rape her[iii], a number which other studies show increases to one in three for women serving in the U.S. military[iv]. Moreover, the CDC reports that their male intimate partners severely physically abuse one in four U.S. women[v]. These statistics reveal the sad truth that for vast numbers of females living in the United States, the choice to refrain from sexual “activity” is not one over which they have exclusive control.

But perhaps that is the direction in which the fine male senators, congressmen, clergy, and other politicians and religious leaders who are so vocal on this subject would like American women to head. Perhaps their girlfriends, wives, and mistresses should all conclude that if male leaders continue to try to prevent women from having exclusive control over their reproductive destiny, it is time for women to show far less interest in accommodating male sexual desires. You are hearing me correctly gentlemen…perhaps it is time American women stand up and say we are disgusted by the seemingly unending male interest in dictating women’s reproductive choice, and this disgust is making us simply uninterested in sex.

The vocal opposition to women’s freedom to unrestricted, insured birth control access coming from male political and religious leaders stands in stark contrast to the virtual silence surrounding an infinite array of male behavior whose negative societal impact far exceeds that of the responsibility women display when they choose to prevent unwanted pregnancies. As a society we seem to overlook, accept, or at a minimum quickly get over a plethora of male foibles and vices. Jim Wallis, president and CEO of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, succinctly sums this idea up in a blog post, stating: “It’s a constant storyline in the media involving powerful men in politics, sports, business, and even religion: Men behave with utter disregard for the dignity and humanity of women – using and abusing them at will, and somehow believing that they are entitled to do so. These men seem to think that the ordinary rules of decent behavior do not apply to them. We have a never-ending cavalcade of disgusting stories about men cheating on their wives and mothers of their children; abandoning old wives for new ones; serial philandering as a way of life; sexually harassing and assaulting women; and even committing rape. But when all is said and done, the perpetrators are still playing basketball, football, and golf; they are still running for political office, and are still at the helm of the institutions of the economy, and even the church.[vi]

And yet, we as a society seem far more interested in questioning and even lambasting the motives of women who take upon themselves the economic and physical burdens of birth control in order to responsibly prevent unwanted pregnancy. These women’s actions avert needless abortions; burgeoning population growth that is economically unsustainable at both the family and societal level; and increasing crime rates from a generation of children raised in poverty and without the economic, parental, and community support so vital to keeping children away from a life of crime. The Guttmacher Institute estimates there would be nearly two million more unintended pregnancies per year should all federal funding for birth control be eliminated[vii] as proposed by Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum[viii], resulting in a two-thirds increase in the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions[ix], no small economic concern considering unintended pregnancies already cost U.S. taxpayers $11.1 billion dollars a year[x]. It should also be noted that 58% of women who use birth control do so, at least in part, for purposes other than pregnancy prevention, such as to treat conditions including irregular menstruation and cramps, acne, or endometriosis[xi].

In criticism of the Obama administration’s regulation requiring Catholic hospitals and universities to include birth control in their employee’s health care coverage, Santorum recently stated, “They’re forcing religious organizations, either directly or indirectly, to pay for something that they find is a deeply, morally, morally, you know, wrong thing.[xii]” One wonders if Santorum even knows what endometriosis is, let alone if he has ever pondered whether a woman should be judged immoral for using birth control to treat such a condition.

Santorum also stated, “It’s not about contraception. It’s about economic liberty, it’s about freedom of speech, it’s about freedom of religion, it’s about government control of your lives and it’s got to stop.[xiii]” This is NOT an issue of religious freedom or liberty. No man, whether he is a clergyman or of any religious persuasion or not, is being forced to utilize birth control. No woman is for that matter either. Nor is any man being forced to administer birth control. No man’s religious liberties are being violated. Men, you may keep your religious beliefs and refrain from your own personal use of birth control. But in a nation committed to basic human rights, your beliefs simply cannot be allowed to restrict my rights. Rights as elemental as deciding whether or not I am prepared to become a mother, a role which in our 21st century American nation is still vastly more demanding than that of being a father.

Writes Keli Goff in The Huffington Post, “Sen. Rick Santorum’s inaccurate remarks regarding the cost of contraception served as a powerful reminder of the severe handicap our political discourse suffers when women are not permitted to speak for themselves on the issues that directly affect them. Before contraception was widely available, there were far fewer women able to do just that, because of the physical, emotional, and financial demands that giving birth to and raising sometimes more than a dozen children (something my great-grandmother did) required. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe some of these elected officials fighting so hard to make contraception as inaccessible as possible want to return to the good old days when contraception was virtually impossible to come by, and therefore men were able to rule the world and, more importantly, their households. Men were able to enjoy absolute power in the legal system and in domestic life without fear that a woman could carve out some semblance of financial and political independence that would enable her to engage in such scandalous behavior as running for office or leaving an abusive relationship. Because after all, where would a woman with six, or seven, or eight small children to care for really go, even if she had a good reason to?[xiv]

In a recent TIME magazine article entitled, “What is a Conservative,” Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, answered: “American conservatives are a threat to no honest man or woman or any peaceable nation. We wish to be left alone to run our own lives as we choose. And we demand that the government provide the same liberty to our countrymen.[xv]” Considering the conservative predilection for dictating women’s reproductive choices – from limiting abortion rights to attacking birth control funding to the radical notion of restricting birth control altogether – conservative leaders across the United States continue to belie this assertion that government should leave Americans alone to run their own lives as they choose.

In a land espousing freedom as its highest ideal, we would be wise to remember that it is the rules of fallible men that are threatening to restrict women’s rights. Considering the quality of life for women living in nation’s without access to affordable and reliable birth control – not to mention the enormous impact on the children born into families and communities unable to sustain them as well as the detrimental impact of burgeoning populations on society itself – it would be a strange god indeed who would truly be offended by a woman’s having the right and the choice to decide whether or not she is prepared and equipped to be a mother. When the ability to decide whether or not one is ready and willing to take on the enormous task of not only birthing, but raising, another life is so positively correlated with societal advances and individual well-being, we must strongly question what motivation a good god could have for being so offended by such choice. With no actual evidence that this is so, we must seriously ponder if the perceptions of fallible men are worth restricting women’s freedom to choose the course of their own lives. My only hope for the men who answer that question in the affirmative is that the Buddhists have it right and reincarnation is our destiny. In that case, when they are born back into this world as females the next time around, they can at least take comfort in the fact that they had a hand in shaping the very laws that now restrict them so needlessly.


[i] Jones, Rachel K. and Dreweke, Joerg, “Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use,” Guttmacher Institute, April 2011.

[ii]  CIA, The World Factbook (online edition,) 8 Feb 2012.

[iii] Black MC, Basile KC, Breiding MJ, Smith SG, Walters ML, Merrick MT, Chen J, Stevens MR. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2011.

[iv] Anne G. Sadler R.N., PhD, Brenda M. Booth PhD, Brian L. Cook DO, MSc, Bradley N. Doebbeling MD, MSc, “Factors Associated with Women’s Risk of Rape in the Military Environment,” American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Volume 43, Issue 3, pages 262-273, March 2003.

[v] Black MC, Basile KC, Breiding MJ, Smith SG, Walters ML, Merrick MT, Chen J, Stevens MR. The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2011.

[vi] Wallis, Jim, Sojourners, God’s Politics Blog, “Zero Tolerance: Trump, Schwarzenegger, and Strauss-Kahn,” 26 May 2011.

[vii] Gold RB et al., “Next Steps for America’s Family Planning Program: Leveraging the Potential of Medicaid and Title X in an Evolving Health Care System,” New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2009.

[viii] Volsky, Igo, “Rick Santorum Pledges to Defund Contraception: ‘It’s Not Okay, It’s A License To Do Things,’” ThinkProgress Health, 19 Oct 2011.

[ix] Gold RB et al., “Next Steps for America’s Family Planning Program: Leveraging the Potential of Medicaid and Title X in an Evolving Health Care System,” New York: Guttmacher Institute, 2009.

[x] Wind, Rebecca, “Nation Pays Steep Price for High Rates of Unintended Pregnancy: New State-Level Incidence Estimates Provide First-Ever Benchmark for Evaluating Impact of State Policies,” Guttmacher Institute, 19 May 2011.

[xi] Jones, Rachel K, “Beyond Birth Control: The Overlooked Benefits of Oral Contraceptive Pills,” Guttmacher Institute, November 2011.

[xiv] Goff, Keli, “10 Facts About Contraception (And How It Changed the World) That Every Man and Woman Should Know,” The Huffington Post, 13 Feb 2012.

[xv] Erickson, Erick, “What is a Conservative,” TIME, 13 Feb 2012.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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