The Body Politic

Forty years after the Supreme Court settled it, we’re somehow having a birth control debate. And Scott Brown’s political future could hang in the balance.

birth control pills

Photo by Christopher Harting

If you’d asked American women a year ago about the most pressing concerns facing the country, they’d have given you a variety of responses: the economy, war, education. Some might have even mentioned reproductive rights. But I doubt a single one of them could have anticipated that in 2012 they’d be worrying about access to birth control. I mean, didn’t we settle all of that decades ago?

Actually, we did. In 1967, Bill Baird, the founder of the Pro Choice League, was arrested for giving spermicidal foam to a female student at Boston University. His case, Eisenstadt v. Baird, went to the Supreme Court, and resulted in the legalization of birth control for anyone, regardless of their marital status. Massachusetts, in other words, once again stood at the forefront of progressive change.

But Senator Scott Brown has done his state’s proud legacy no honor. In February, he cosponsored the Blunt amendment — a radically anti-birth control measure that would have allowed religious groups, insurers, and employers to deny coverage for contraception, or any other service or medication, on moral grounds. Yes, you read that right: Your boss could deny coverage for the pill, and hospitals could refuse to give life-saving abortions to dying women. “No one should be forced by government to do something that violates the teachings of their faith,” Brown argued.

Elizabeth Warren, Brown’s likely Democratic challenger in November, couldn’t believe the opening Brown provided, and unloaded: “This is an extreme attack on every one of us,” she told the Washington Post in February. “It opens the door to outright discrimination. It would let insurance companies and corporations cut off pregnant women, overweight guys, older Americans…because some executive claims it’s part of his moral code.”

Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, calls the debate “appalling.” Not only does it set back women’s reproductive rights, she says, it runs counter to this state’s universal healthcare policy. “Because we have been at the fore of this battle to provide preventative care to everyone, we would expect our U.S. senators to reflect that ideal, not look to destroy it.”


Thankfully, the Senate defeated the Blunt amendment by a 51–48 vote, but the aftershocks of birth control suddenly becoming a national “controversy” continue. Republicans are claiming religious discrimination, Democrats are focusing on GOP extremism, and feminists remain baffled that decades after these issues were seemingly put to rest, here they are again.

But the resurrected debate over contraception isn’t merely a tone-deaf GOP burning bridges with female voters (though it certainly is that, too). It’s a clash of old-school conservative gender norms and a new generation of women who are fed up and have the power of online activism to make their voices heard.

Despite the recent media attention that the “war on women” has received, these attacks are nothing new. The Blunt amendment is just the latest example of Republicans using morality as an excuse to try to keep contraception from women. In fact, 47 states already have some sort of “conscience clause” law on the books, allowing healthcare providers, employers, and pharmacists to refuse medications, services, and referrals that they morally oppose. During the Bush administration, that refusal was so common that some pharmacists publicly shared tips for dealing with women seeking birth control. In 2005, the Arizona Republic published a letter by pharmacy manager Dan Gransinger, which advised that a “pharmacist should just tell the patient that he is out of the medication and can order it, but it will take a week to get here. The patient will be forced to go to another pharmacy because she has to take these medicines within 72 hours [of unprotected sex] for them to be effective. Problem solved.” Great! Because nothing says “healthcare professional” like lying to clients.


  • Karen

    This article and article’s like it only fuel the “fire” to the “debate”. No one is denying women access to birth control, it’s disingenuous to spin it politically in that direction. The concern is mandating payment of a product that women have been paying for for decades. Be forthright, Republicans are not against woman, we all know that. Heck, let’s be fair, maybe they should mandate Viagra coverage for men? The debate is that silly!
    Actually I’m surprised that this magazine would be that partisan against Scott Brown. This is an article that supports candidate Elizabeth Warren (who isn’t even from Massachusetts and is too ashamed to admit she is from Oklahoma.) Stick to the real facts, quit spinning the real issues!

    • Frederick

      There is not one statement in this article that exaggerates or misconstrues the monstrous attacks on women by the fundamentalist-controlled GOP. The war they are waging against women, gays, minorities, and even science itself is very real and should be quite obvious to any but the most deluded Fox News watcher.

    • Lauren

      I completely disagree with you. The Blunt amendment would have put the religious and moral beliefs of insurers and employers above those of the individuals being insured. Employers and insurers have the right to make their own best health choices based on their own religious and moral beliefs but they do not have the right to make those choices for others. Those choices that are recognized by the medical community as reasonable healthcare options should be available to all regardless of the beliefs of their employers or insurance companies. It is an absurd idea that an employer or insurer should be able to dictate what they want covered. Insurers or employers who are Jehovah’s witnesses could mandate no blood products would be covered. Those employers or insurers that are Christian Scientists and believe solely in the power of prayer to cure could mandate no medicines. Those who believe that homosexuality is a deviant behavior could mandate no coverage for AIDS or HIV. We respect each individual’s right to make their own best healthcare choices based on their own religious and moral beliefs, not those dictated by their employer or insurer. Every individual, man or woman who respects personal liberty and autonomy should be up in arms over the Blunt amendment and those who support it!

  • Jane Toussaint

    Whenever I hear about doctors or pharmacists (or corporate sponsored health care insurance) being allowed to refuse medical procedures or medications if it goes against their religious or moral teachings, I wonder what would happen if they applied these same restrictions to covering or dispensing erectile dysfunction drugs to men. Would they ever get away with requiring sworn, notarized statements that the men in question would only be using the with their lawfully-wedded wives?? I don’t think so!

  • Julian Praxis

    Please visit or to find out about Bill Baird, a warrior for reproductive rights for almost fifty years.

  • http://ReproductiveRights Michele Lutz

    “The authority of any governing institution must stop at its citizen’s skin.”

    Gloria Steinem (b. 1934), U.S. feminist writer, editor. “Night Thoughts of a Media-Watcher,” in Ms. (New York, Nov. 1981)

    As Ms. Steinem indicated in 1981, I find it reprehensible that over 30 years later, women, especially, those who are poor, continue to be forced by government patriarchs to fight to gain control over their own reproductive systems. It seems that the “barefoot and pregnant” model could potentially resurface resulting in dire consequences for those who cannot afford birth control.

  • Jim Brown

    If the choice to insurance companies to stop paying for birth control is acceptable, is state-sponsored programs (spending thousands and thousands of dollars) to care for children born out of unwanted pregnancy acceptable? If the reasoning behind this debate is about maintaining moral values, why don’t they put effort into teaching kids better moral values, and educate them on physiology, psychology and sexuality as they begin growing up? Why not treat the problem at the root of it versus after the flower has bloomed?