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.

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.

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