Saturday, February 18, 2012

An Equal Right to Selfishness

While it all seems a little 1950s-esque, you may have noticed that women's access to birth control is a hot topic in American politics right now, with some wondering if birth control policy will be a deciding factor in the 2012 election. In case you haven't noticed, here's the gist of the situation: The Obama administration's success in reforming health insurance is causing a big uproar among conservatives (big surprise), most recently because of an official mandate that birth control be covered, without co-pay, as an essential component of women's healthcare. Since some religious authorities--mainly Catholic bishops and Rick Santorum--have raised a stink by arguing that this mandate infringes on their religious freedom, Obama recently made a "compromise" that, well, was more of a polite way of telling opponents to #@$% off.

Naturally, many people are grateful for Obama's resoluteness, especially in an election year. Coverage of birth control has been soundly defended on the basis of women's rights to equal health insurance and reproductive choice. However, Pamela Haag, at, thinks we should be defending birth control for less euphemistic reasons:
Birth control isn’t about my health unless by health you mean, my capacity to get it on, to have a happy, joyous sex life that involves an actual male partner. The point of birth control is to have sex that’s recreational and non-procreative. It’s to permit women to exercise their desires without the sword of Damocles of unwanted pregnancy hanging gloomily over their heads.”
Her article acknowledges the political expediency of using "choice" and "women's health" as rhetorical devices in the public sphere, but she laments the lack of straightforwardness about the fact that most women who use birth control do so to have sex:
“So here’s the subject I advocate for, because no one dares to speak her name: It’s the 20-something unmarried heterosexual woman who wants to have sex, has sex, enjoys a good sex life with her boyfriend, and, in that sex life, uses birth control. Or, she accidentally gets pregnant. She doesn’t get pregnant because she’s a victim of non-consensual sex. She gets pregnant while enjoying sex. She doesn’t use birth control to regulate her menstrual cycle. She uses birth control because she has sex.”
While I agree that this fundamental issue is generally left out of polite tabel conversations--or impolite political conversations--I don't think it is the most important issue that we should be using as a "rallying cry." Yes, women's sexual liberty is not as accepted as it should be; slut-shaming and victim-blaming still plague popular discussions of rape, abuse, abortion, and birth control. But that doesn't change the fact that, in the privacy of their homes/cars/clubs/backyards/kitchen tables, premarital sex is the norm in our country and most people approve of it. And, since (unfortunately) most people think of heterosexual couples when the topic of premarital sex comes up, we can safely conclude that most people approve of women having premarital sex--a.k.a. exercising their libido for non-procreative purposes.

So, given the basic assumption that most people don't pray for hell's wrath to descend upon American women for having recreational sex (even Catholic ones), it is sort of a no-brainer that birth control facilitates these practices. Again, I agree with Haag that we're not really talking about this underlying assumption, but I don't think we need to. In fact, there is a much more crucial result of women's access to birth control that should be emphasized even more than either female sexual liberty or women's health, and that is economic viability.

I'm sure you've all heard about the gender pay gap. But a lot of people are unaware of the pay gap between mothers and non-mothers, which is actually larger than the gap between men and women. Sure, some of these mothers voluntarily sacrificed a career for the sake of building a family (how "voluntary" this choice was and the fact that a lot of women have to choose between work and children is a whole problem in itself, but one too complex to delve into here). However, a lot of these mothers may have made a different choice if birth control was freely available to them: either to delay pregnancy or avoid it all together.

An issue in gender equality that, in my experience, often goes unsaid is that, no matter how socially equal men and women become, women will always be biologically required to put in a little extra effort if they want to have a family, a.k.a be pregnant for 9 months, give birth, then breastfeed for a while (most women don't want or cannot afford to adopt or get a surrogate). Women have uteruses, men don't, end of story. Granted, this problem could largely be solved if employers didn't discriminate against mothers, if childcare was affordable and available for everyone, if paternity and maternity leave were required, etc. etc. But, again, that's a whole other issue.

My point is that the biological imperative that women be the ones to carry a pregnancy is, in our current social/economic/political world, a large financial disadvantage for many, even most, women. And, since having children outside of marriage is now very common and single mothers increasingly characterize this country's population of the extremely poor, it seems especially relevant to point out that free, accessible contraception could go a long way toward preventing needlessly common unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. I'm all for sexual liberty and women's health and stable families, but shouldn't the primary rallying cry be that of economic equality? Some argue that the introduction of the pill has accounted for "30% of the convergence of men's and women's earnings from 1990 to 2000." Additionally, a study has shown that the earlier a woman starts taking birth control, the more likely it is that she will earn higher wages later in life. Talk about a smart economic investment!

When so many other barriers exist for women--or anyone, for that matter--to achieve independent economic stability, shouldn't we be given the basic resources to control our own fertility, to not have our prospects in a career, a degree, or just a trip around the world be derailed by an unwanted pregnancy? It's right there, in the name: birth control. In the end, birth control gives us the power to be what economically successful men with wives at home caring for their offspring have always been able to take for granted: selfish. No matter who tells us it's not lady-like, we should at least have the right to selfishly pursue our own economic empowerment. And access to birth control is the most basic step toward that.

1 comment:

  1. More evidence for birth control's positive effects on the economy: