The Politicization Of Women’s Bodies In The Ongoing U.S. Birth Control Debate

The surrounding regulations on the rights of a women’s body have been at the forefront of United States politics throughout history. Women’s marginalization, in so many aspects of life, has contributed to this regulation. Women have been fighting for control of their own bodies,  including for the bid to legalize, normalize, and provide easy access to contraception for women. Although birth control was legalized over 50 years ago in the U.S., it remains a contentious issue in society and politics. The restrictions that continue to surround contraception are emblematic of deeper issues on women’s rights.

Birth control has a long history in the U.S. Prior to the 20th century when contraceptives first became commonplace, the U.S. had banned any and all discussion or information dissemination about birth control (Comstock laws). In defiance of these laws, Margaret Sanger – who would go on to become an early founder of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America – published contraceptive information for women in 1914, and became the first to publicly coin the phrase ‘birth control’. Two years later, Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, NY, which was soon shut down by police. In 1923, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, a precursor to Planned Parenthood, and from here, the birth control movement in the U.S. gained momentum. After WWII, contraception became more commonplace, and after years of scientific research, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved the first oral contraceptive in 1960. Married and unmarried women were able to purchase ‘The Pill’ in 1965 and 1972 respectively. According to TIME Magazine, by 1973, 70% of married women between 15-44 were using some form of contraception and according to Planned Parenthood, over 13 million women in the world were using birth control. Further contraceptives were developed including emergency contraception and in 1998, birth control was included in insurance coverage for all federal government employees, and this soon spread to all employees with health insurance in 28 states.

Currently, the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) estimates that almost 99% of sexually active American women have used a form of contraception at least once in their lives. This number has grown due to the ease with which women are able to access information and buy contraception. However, there continues to be a push to restrict birth control in the U.S. – primarily seen in the form of conscience clauses surrounding birth control laws and legislation, which allow healthcare professionals and employers to refuse to supply or provide access to birth control based on religious or moral grounds. This clause has become extremely controversial in healthcare fields as it allows hospitals, doctors, pharmacists, and employers to refuse patients medical care based on their ethical beliefs, which many opponents of the clause argue is a tactic to undermine women’s reproductive rights.

As part of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama required all employers to cover, without employee co-payment, all female contraception. However recently, President Trump rolled back this Obama-era policy and any employer can now refuse to cover an employee’s birth control on religious grounds or due to strong moral convictions against birth control. This decision was met with swift criticism, as according to the National Women’s Law Centre, it will affect over 55 million women whose birth control is currently covered under the contraceptive coverage mandate. The centre has also stated that in 2013, women saved $1.4 billion in contraception as a result of the mandate and prior to the law passing in 2012, Hart Research Associates found that one in three women struggled to afford contraception. The new regulations would affect these women again by forcing them to pay for their own birth control, which many cannot afford. This in turn could force many women to irregularly take contraception which would increase their chances of pregnancy. Additionally women who take contraceptives for other health reasons will also be affected.

The Trump administration also claimed that the mandate cannot be linked to lower rates in unwanted pregnancies and that contraception only encourages teenagers to have increasingly risky sex outside of marriage. However, while direct causation cannot be proved, based on a CHOICE Project study, women who have access to free birth control were found to have lower pregnancy, birth, and abortion rates compared to the U.S. average. The CDC also found that teenagers are less sexually active today than in the past and the teen pregnancy rate has almost halved in the last ten years. Earlier this year, the Guttmacher Institute also found that the abortion rate is at the lowest it has been in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in 1973. The new regulations therefore, seem to be a result of an anti-contraception White House and pressure from religious groups and organizations, with no regard for the women whose lives will be affected. While religious beliefs should be accommodated, they should never impose on a woman’s healthcare right to birth control coverage. Richard B. Katsee, the legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State explained the new regulations burdened women who would no longer be able to easily access birth control. In a statement, he said “religious freedom is the right to believe and worship as you see fit. It’s never the right to use government to impose costs, burdens, or harms on other people. You can’t use the government to make other people pay the price for your religious beliefs or practices.”

The politicization of birth control has existed as long as the birth control movement has, in large part due to the entanglement with abortion rights and women’s rights. Abortion became a partisan issue in the early 1980s, when the tide began to turn rapidly against abortion, contraception, and Planned Parenthood. As pressure from pro-life groups, religious groups and organizations, and churches strengthened the GOP’s anti-abortion stance, Planned Parenthood was forced to pin itself to the Democrats which has further politicized women’s healthcare. This politicization has burdened women who are unable to access healthcare and most recently, has sown fear that their healthcare rights will be taken away from them, as evidenced by an increase in donations and visits to Planned Parenthood after the November 2016 election and numerous social media posts and threads warning women to stock up on contraception, according to CNN.

Restricting birth control, and the process by which women can acquire birth control undermines women’s reproductive rights and their right to control their own bodies. The politicization of women’s healthcare is emblematic of deeper issues surrounding women’s rights and how society views women. In the past, while women have been at the forefront of gender equality movements, policy decisions have almost always excluded women and women’s voices have not been heard.

Women’s rights groups have long fought for women’s access to contraception, reproductive rights, and healthcare, and the changes to the contraceptive coverage mandate are no exception. A number of NGO’s and other organizations have spoken out against the new regulations and vowed to challenge the move, including Planned Parenthood, the National Women’s Law Centre, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Centre for Reproductive Rights, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Physicians for Reproductive Health, and many more. Both California and Massachusetts states have filed lawsuits against the Trump administration, and Reuters reported that at least 16 other Democratic state attorneys general have also threatened legal action against the administration.

However, despite these efforts – and despite how much has changed in the last 50 years – there is still further to go in the fight for female reproductive rights. Everyone has the right to control over their own body and this includes women’s access to birth control and their right to choose whether or when to have children. Denying these rights to women, and denying them healthcare services and information, means treating women as unequal to men which is a human rights violation and a significant issue around the world. The politicization of women’s bodies will continue as long as women’s healthcare rights are seen as less important to this administration, and related policy is decided on without input from female voices or concern for the effects on women. The current incarnation of the birth control movement that began with Margaret Sanger will continue until the regulations are reversed, women in the U.S. have full access to birth control again, and women across the world have the ability to make their own decisions about their bodies, irrespective of other parties.

Ashika Manu