Why Are We Debating Birth Control … Again?

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

Just a few years ago, these conservative efforts to stymie women’s rights went largely unnoticed by the mainstream. Many American women — too many — thought the fight for equality was over. Flash forward to 2012. Our cultural obsession with social media now ensures that these sexist policies and extremist healthcare providers won’t go unseen—word gets around too fast. Were Gransinger to write his letter today, his Facebook wall would be defaced and Twitter would go berserk with a #stopGransinger campaign.

Not convinced? Well, the Internet all but exploded in January when the breast cancer organization Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced it was pulling its funding of Planned Parenthood — money meant for cancer screenings for low-income women. More than 1.3 million tweets were written in a week, and thousands of protest messages were left on the organization’s Facebook wall. Komen quickly reversed its decision, a top official resigned, and Planned Parenthood wound up raising $3 million. Similar online furor was directed at Rush Limbaugh when he called Sandra Fluke — the Georgetown law student who testified at a Democratic hearing about insurance coverage for birth control — a “slut” and a “prostitute.” (He also suggested that Fluke should put up videos of herself having sex. Very classy.) The public outrage led to the quick withdrawal of major Limbaugh advertisers, and forced him to apologize.

In April, Bill Baird, now 79, offered a reminder that this decades-long fight is still far from settled in a letter he wrote to Fluke. “There will always be those who will try to deny us our freedoms,” he wrote. “As you have seen, it takes eternal vigilance to fight against those forces.”

It remains to be seen, however, if this rancor over these latest attacks on women’s healthcare will create lasting change. Limbaugh’s advertisers are already trickling back, and despite the defeat of the Blunt amendment, anti-abortion and anti-birth control legislation continues to make its way across the states. A bill being considered in Kansas would ban lawsuits against doctors who omit information about prenatal tests that might lead a pregnant woman to get an abortion. And Arizona recently tried to pass a bill that would have allowed employers to deny women coverage for birth control unless they could prove that they were taking contraception for a non-sexual medical reason — like acne.

Cristina Page, author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, says we’re at an unprecedented time in American politics. “This year, every GOP presidential candidate opposed access to contraception, something unimaginable even just five or six years ago,” she tells me. Still, Page remains optimistic. If President Obama succeeds with universal coverage of birth control, she says, it will “do more to protect and expand access to contraception than any president before him.”

Amundson is similarly hopeful. She calls Elizabeth Warren’s stance on the issue heartening, and notes that the latest polls show increasing support for Obama among women. Still, she says, the fact that this is even a debate at all is “indicative of a political climate where women are not seen as equals.”

In the meantime, it’s quite possible that this most unlikely of controversies in this most unlikely of states could prove incredibly important to the Senate race. Right now polls show Warren and Scott Brown deadlocked, but much of Brown’s appeal is in his bipartisan appearance. By portraying Brown’s vote on the Blunt amendment as a kind of extremism on women’s health issues, Warren could put a dent in her opponent’s moderate image. Because even though Republicans have long been known for disdaining anything that could mean sexual freedom for women, it never hurts to give voters a bit of a reminder.

  • 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!

  • http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bill-Baird/400902533276575 Julian Praxis

    Please visit prochoiceleague.org or http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bill-Baird/400902533276575 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?