That’s Progress?

Why the Hell Are We Still Debating Birth Control—in 2017?

They say it’s about religious liberty; but really, they just don’t want women to have control over their bodies and destinies. Let’s talk real talk.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

In the long history of human existence, we’ve invented automobiles and airplanes and learned to walk upright in order to hunch over our smart phones. Humanity has evolved at a breakneck pace and the sophistication of our technologies and know-how seems only to quicken by the day.

And yet somehow, in this modern moment in the United States of America, we are still debating contraceptive access for women. The reason why has nothing to do with religion. It isn’t even really about procreation. Contraception is a symbolic battle at the threshold of the next era of American progress.

Contraception has always been about not only reproductive freedom but freedom in general. The ability to decide if and when to start a family has massive ramifications for women in terms of educational and professional pursuits, and thus income as well as the attainment of their life goals and fulfillment in general. In the United States, unintended pregnancy rates are highest among poor and low-income women — which in turn only makes it harder for those women to set their sights on already-out-of-reach economic opportunities.

The Affordable Care Act guarantees access to contraception as a type of preventative care that must be provided by insurers without a co-pay — thus ensuring that more women have access to contraceptive choices. In opposing the contraception mandate on scientifically bogus grounds, conservatives are using the fig leaf of religious liberty to disguise their longstanding disdain for the liberty of women.

It’s no accident that this fight is resurfacing under a president who boasted about the size of his penis while losing the popular vote to a candidate who would have been our nation’s first woman president. Moments of looming progress often lead to moments of retrenchment. And Donald Trump embodies that retrenchment, in both his persona and policies. He is a bag of hyper-masculine hot air who ran on the presumption of his own superiority over a woman he repeatedly threatened to lock up. Arguably, masculinity has always defined the contours of American politics, but its enduring power in this last election cycle should appall us. To top it off, Donald Trump ran against the very notion of “political correctness,” in effect preemptively turning (to his supporters, anyway) any charges of sexism leveled at him into so much liberal bellyaching.  

Yet outsized though it may see, Trump’s misogyny fits squarely within the established norms of conservative culture. Almost half of Republicans think that mothers working outside the home is a trend that is “bad for society” — compared to around a quarter of Democrats who feel the same. And 27 percent of Republican men say that men make better political leaders compared to women, while just 11 percent of Democratic men do. Denying contraception access isn’t just about a pill, but a principle — from denying paid family leave to fighting equal pay laws to constantly rolling back access to abortion, conservatives want to keep women and their bodies in their place. 

Equal rights for women is incompatible with Trump’s America. After all, if we give women the right to control their own choices including when and how we get pregnant, next thing you know we’ll want equal say in everything. We might even object to being grabbed by the pussy. (“When you’re a star they let you do it,” Trump famously boasted.) The equality of women is a direct challenge to the disproportionate fame and wealth that give Trump disproportionate power and impunity. It’s also a direct challenge to the historic inequity that the modern Republican Party is invested in perpetuating.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, are women — especially poor and working-class women — who simply want their health insurance plans to cover their birth control so that they can control their own damn bodies and get on with their lives. Strangely, conservatives don’t equally object to mandates in Obamacare that ensure access to STD screenings without a co-pay. Because of course they don’t object to women having sex — they just object to women being in charge of the decisions about the conditions for and consequences of their sexuality. Some things change but some things stay the same. And it turns out misogyny evolves, too.