avatar
What the War over Contraception is Really About: Control over Women’s Bodies


For weeks, bewildered Americans have witnessed politicians debate whether or not contraception should be covered by President’s Obama’s new health care plan. On March 1, after some of the most bizarre theatrical antics remembered in this nation’s political history, the U.S. Senate finally interrupted this surreal soap opera with a cliff hanger.  By only two votes, they defeated an amendment that would have allowed religious employers to refuse to pay for the contraception of their employees.  

The pilot episode of the drama began on February 16, when President Obama announced that all the employers of all institutions, regardless of their religious affiliation, would have to pay for contraception.  When the Catholic Church and right-wing fringe went ballistic, he compromised and said that if an institution felt it was violating its religious beliefs, then the insurance company would have to pay. 

But even that compromise was insufficient.  In the weeks that followed, the Republicans launched a war on contraception. They told women that the appropriate birth control pill was an aspirin held by tightly-grasped knees; they created a religious “hearing” on contraception made up of all men; and right-wing radio pundit Rush Limbaugh called a Georgetown University law student, who had defended contraception, a “slut” and a “prostitute.” “No drama Obama” only intensified the plot when he personally called the student and thanked her for supporting his health plan.

Every day brought new and unbelievable episodes in this weird melodrama.   In Virginia, the legislature passed a bill that would require a pregnant woman seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina so she would really know she was carrying a human being. The Governor at first agreed, but then, attacked for humiliating pregnant women, dithered about what kind of bill he would sign. Some opponents, of course, genuinely believe that contraception is the same thing as abortion—the murder of a human being.  Some may even realize that less contraception results in more abortions and more government expenditures for unwanted children.  The Republicans certainly know that the vast majority of Americans, including Catholics, support birth control, but they just couldn’t stop themselves. They thought they had found a way to defeat the President. 

But they were wrong.  

Women and independents tend to support birth control. In fact, by March 1, 63% of those polled supported the President’s compromise.  Liberal groups mobilised all across the country, noting that the right-wing wants an unobtrusive government unless it involves inserting a probe into a woman’s body for an ultrasound. Senator Barbara Boxer launched “one million Strong for Women,” to make women’s voice heard. Democrats, realising that the Republicans had truly overreached, became positively giddy at how much they had to gain if they could keep the debate simmering.

So, part of this soap opera was simply politics as the loopy, right-wing fringe Republicans became intoxicated with the possibility of electing one of two candidates, both of whom oppose contraception and abortion. (Although former Governor Mitt Romney flip-flopped when he backed away from his support of contraception and joined the Republican opposition a few hours later).

So what’s really going on?

The Republican party, for its part, framed the fight as one of religious freedom and freedom of speech, protected by the first amendment to the constitution. Democrats and women’s rights advocates responded that it was exclusively about women’s health care. 

The media, with all its stenographic sophistry, uncritically quoted the language of both sides.  The New York Times, for example, said that “ the furor over President Obama’s birth control mandate has swiftly entered a new plane, with supporters and opponents alike calling the subject a potent weapon for the November elections and taking it to the public in campaigns to shape the issue—is it about religious liberty or women’s health?”

Actually everyone has missed the real story. 

What neither side wants to say is that this is a counter-reformation, an attempt to return women to the early 1960s, before birth control pill existed and the Supreme Court, in Griswold v.Connecticut (1965), established the right of contraception in the United States. In short, it was a nostalgic effort to return to a time when a middle class man could support a family, women knew their place, Georgetown University law students were mostly men,  and African Americans could not vote, let alone become President. It was a time of male and racial supremacy, before the civil rights and women’s movements changed the political culture of this country and economic changes made a two-income family necessary.  

At stake in 2012 is the right of a woman to control her own fertility, her own reproductive choices and therefore, to lead an independent life.  This is a battle that has raged since the late 19th century. After abortion became legal in 1973, the Republican party inserted an anti-abortion plank into its 1980 platform and ever since, every Republican candidate has had to pass a litmus test of opposing abortion in order to run for president.

For most of human history, sexuality and reproduction have been intricately yoked together.  Birth control, particularly the Pill, ruptured that link and gave women the right to enjoy sex without the goal of reproduction.  When the Supreme Court formally ratified that rupture by making abortion legal inRoe v. Wade, (1973), many people in this country trembled at the possible changes women’s sexual independence might bring. By then, the women’s movement had challenged and changed laws and customs that governed the daily lives of women in both the work place and at home. The idea of women’s sexual freedom polarised the nation, with both men and women advocating for different choices.  

In short, the war over contraception during the last bizarre month was never about religious freedom or women’s health care.  It was about controlling women’s right to control their own bodies and to make their own sexual and reproductive choices.

Hardly anyone feels free to say this. Opponents of women’s sexual freedom talk about free speech or religious freedom when what they really want to do is to repeal everything the women’s movement’s changed.  Supporters of women’s right to make their own sexual and reproductive choices know they must emphasise women’s health care.  Even though contraception and abortion are a central part of that health care, they know they must remain mum about women’s sexual freedom.

This soap opera is hardly over. In fact, we are now seeing re-reruns of this never-ending drama.  Some of us remember that in 1969, a feminist group called Redstockings disrupted a New York State hearing on whether abortion should be legal.  The panel included a dozen men and one nun.  The women’s effort to be heard was thwarted when the hearing was moved.  

Today, contraception and abortion are legal, but state by state, laws are chipping away at women’s access to both contraception and abortion. The truth is, this is the last gasp of a patriarchal counter-reformation that is still alive, mobilized and, most importantly, well-funded. Stay tuned, as they say. The soap opera is far from over.

Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Davis, is a scholar-in-residence at the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her most recent book is "The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America." This article is cross-posted from openDemocracy. 

Leave a comment