Women should have unrestricted access to birth control; unrestricted by politicians or by cost. Gone are the days when birth control was prescribed only to married women. Yet society continues to try to judge when or why a woman can use contraception. I’ve seen a lot of people argue that some women need it for ovarian cysts, heavy periods, or endometriosis, as if this is more virtuous and thus, more justified than women who want it so that they don’t get pregnant. This is ludicrous. Women shouldn’t have to explain to anyone why they want to have sex but don’t want to get pregnant. Do men ever have this conversation with the public?
What right do politicians, religious leaders, and others have to judge the morality of women, when no one seems to care much about the morality of men? Men certainly aren’t expected to pass some test of virtue before getting a vasectomy paid for by health insurance.
I used to be a devout Catholic. I continue to applaud much of what the church does, including community outreach, the Catholic worker program, mental health services, schools, and charity hospitals that help people from all denominations. But I left the church twenty-five years ago because I could not be a part of institutionalized bigotry toward homosexuals and because I opposed the church’s treatment of women.
Before I left, some Catholic friends made this argument. “My priest is very tolerant of gays. You can find a priest like that.” There are many pockets of tolerance in the Catholic community. I could have easily found one of these churches and continued to be Catholic. But I still left. I had just finished a college history class, and I realized that history doesn’t tell you about these pockets. History would say, “The Catholics were opposed to (fill in the blank) and this percent of the country was Catholic.” I couldn’t be a part of any institution that didn’t treat all of God’s people equally. When I left, I thought the Catholic Church would change, and that I’d return. But in the ensuing 25-years, the church has become more intractable than ever on these policies. Gays can no longer become priests. And now the bishops are crying an attack on their religious freedom because the President wants all women to have access to birth control.
Catholic institutions should not force their religious beliefs on the people they hire or serve. It’s not just because they get tax breaks from our government (and thus, from us, the taxpayers.) It’s because our country was founded on religious freedom and tolerance. That freedom goes both ways. We give it to religious institutions, but they also give it to us. Imagine the scandal if Jewish hospitals circumcised all boys or if a Muslim hospital forced all women to wear veils?
I have worked at a Catholic institution for more than a decade. They stopped providing birth control a few years after I started. This meant that about 80% of my department had to start paying for it out of pocket. It costs about $60/month. When a Catholic hospital stops providing birth control to the staff, do they expect the women to all get pregnant? Or do they expect that the women will purchase the birth control out of their own pocket? From an employment point of view, they surely don’t want half their work force gone on maternity leave. They can’t want to pay the labor and delivery costs of all those births. Think of how many kids would be added to their family health care plans. Financially, it could get very expensive. But bishops know all of this. They can crunch the numbers. I think that they actually just expected women to pay out of pocket for birth control. Now they are crying foul, because they don’t want to foot the bill that women have been footing all these years.
Do I sound a little cynical? Well, I guess I am. Maybe it’s because tying tubes and vasectomies are also against church rules, as is marrying if you can’t procreate. But the rhythm method is encouraged. So it’s okay to try to prevent pregnancy, just not if you do it with a reliable method.
It’s hard not to feel that the bishops support these arcane rules, not just to save money, but because they have never had to worry about getting pregnant. They will never have an ultrasound probe stuck up their vagina, either. Which brings me to abortion. Pro-Lifers and Pro-Choicers are not that far apart, if we stick strictly to the issue of abortion. We all want a dramatic drop in the number of abortions. But the one thing that would lower the abortion rate the most, easy access to birth control, is opposed by many Pro-Lifers. Another thing that would reduce abortions, sex education in high school (real education, not abstinence teaching), is also opposed by many Pro-Lifers. When I was in high school, our varsity football coach taught our Health class. He taught the section on pregnancy first, then birth control, so we all paid attention. He taught us that abstinence was best, sex with someone you loved was second best, and then he taught us how to prevent unwanted pregnancies. He knew that some seventeen year olds were going to have sex. I didn’t use that knowledge for several years, because I practiced abstinence. But once I was ready to have sex, I remembered. And I never got pregnant until the day I stopped using it in order to get pregnant. If I hadn’t learned about birth control from him, I’m not sure where I would have learned it. But that kind of class is all but gone from most high schools today. We need it back and, as a society, we need to make boys and men accountable for birth control, too. It has to be socially appropriate for men to be as committed to using protection as women. How can we do this? Maybe our politicians can pass a law that requires men to get trans-anal probes stuck in them anytime their partner goes in for an abortion.
We also need birth control to be accessible. But this won’t happen if religious institutions can remove it from their health care coverage. Today, I can foot the $1200 annual bill for birth control. Ten years ago, when my Catholic employer cut birth control from my health care plan, I couldn’t. Back then, I sold my plasma in the wintertime to help pay my heating bill. So, the Pill wasn’t an option for me. With gas and grocery prices so high today, how does someone on minimum wage swing it? They won’t. They’ll get pregnant and probably either drop out of the work force or get an abortion.
Maybe it’s because all bishops are men, or because most politicians are men, but women have not been treated as equals in this debate. That is why some people thought it was okay to prevent poor women from getting breast cancer screens because the organization that did it also provided abortions. Adult women’s lives are as important as the life of an unborn fetus. Did I really have to say that? The politicians who are trying to make policy on women’s reproductive rights don’t even invite women to the discussion. I thought we’d come a long way in the past 25-years, but I’m beginning to feel like those years were an illusion. I’m reminded of Gloria Steinem’s famous essay, “If Men Could Menstruate” which discusses the way that a patriarchal society stacks the decks in favor of the men in power. It was written in the 1970s but it still applies today.
But perhaps things have changed. One man with a lot of power, the President, is trying to make birth control accessible to all women. And many other men have leapt to support the cause. It makes sense, because access to contraception benefits men as much as women. We’re all in this together. Most of us don’t want ten kids. So in spite of the disregard, and at times hatred, for women that we’ve seen in some of the public discourse recently, I’m heartened by the number of women and men who are ready for a fight on this issue. We thought this battle was fought and won a generation ago. The women who fought so hard for these rights remember how it was. They aren’t going back to that. And neither am I. Women make up more than half the world. The bishops make up an ever diminishing scrap. Politicians, unfortunately, proliferate. But they need women’s votes to succeed. Ironically, their famously anti-government stance belies their eagerness to interfere on a very personal level with women’s reproductive rights. As much as I’m stunned by their hypocrisy, I know they will ultimately fail because of women and men like me, who will put aside other political issues this fall to vote for our reproductive rights. I’m going to vote with my vagina. Keep your fucking probes out of it, and stop telling me what to do!!!