With all the rollbacks on Obama-era measures that the current administration have been implementing, the New York Times report on Oct. 6 about not ensuring that businesses cover birth control was no surprise. And more recently came the first appearance of institutions taking advantage of such changes. An NPR report on Nov. 3 cited the University of Notre Dame as the first major institution to not cover contraceptives for their students and faculty, going into effect this December. The Trump administration and Notre Dame alike are ignoring the multiple uses of contraceptives that are essential to women’s health, focusing on the issue with a purely narrow and religious perspective.
Contraceptives, birth control, “the pill” — they’ve been stereotypically synonymous with “sluts,” girls who are “easy,” who will hook up with anyone because they don’t need to worry about a potential pregnancy. It seems that this is still the way women who use contraceptives are viewed by lawmakers and those with religious affiliations. If you went today to Catholic.com to learn about the Catholic church’s position on contraceptives, they will cite Pope Paul VI’s 1968 definition of contraception, which is “any action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act [sexual intercourse], or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible.” It is therefore a sin to use not only the pill as a means of protection, but basic materials like condoms or any other methods during sex to ensure there is no chance of a pregnancy.
After the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, it became impressed on not just the gay community, but on all those who were sexually active, just how important protection during sex is. This isn’t solely about unwanted pregnancies, but about protection from life-threatening STIs like the HIV virus, and about preventing another epidemic like the one caused from AIDS. Today, condoms aren’t just about making sure girls don’t get pregnant, but about using a barrier to protect yourself if you have sex with someone who hasn’t been tested for an STI or even has an STI. Condoms are protection to men as birth control is protection for women, so why are we limiting women’s access to contraceptives?
There is the argument that while both condoms and contraceptives offer sexual coverage, men don’t have condoms covered at their place of work, so why should women have that courtesy extended to them? And the plain answer is that the functions of birth control extend much farther than protecting against unprotected pregnancy. The FAQ of the Center for Young Women’s Health lists birth control almost as an afterthought, highlighting instead all of the different conditions that can occur during a woman’s menstrual cycle that birth control treats. The birth control pill helps regulate hormones, treat conditions such as Primary Ovarian Insufficiency to make up for a lack of estrogen and to improve bone health, and to give help to women who haven’t even begun menstruating yet. The site also states that those regularly taking the pill are less likely to get anemia, and that it “lower[s] your chance of getting endometrial (lining of the uterus) cancer, ovarian cancer, and ovarian cysts.”
It would also be one thing if lawmakers, to supplement the lack of birth control options given to women, in turn were prepared to offer more services for women with a pregnancy they were not prepared for. This could include assistance with finding and access to affordable childcare, or consistently effective maternity leave that does not penalize women for taking time from work. But these new measures just seem to offer problems without solutions, leaving women in the middle with fewer and fewer options.
In a Slate article from 2012, the focus was on providing contraception to women in developing nations, where maternal mortality is high. The emerging pattern with unintended pregnancies in places of poverty drive women to unsafe methods to terminate their pregnancy, which can in turn lead to their own deaths. Though things aren’t as extreme in this country, for some women, feeling trapped because of a pregnancy they are not prepared for, whether mentally, emotionally or financially, can put them in a similar situation. Religious freedom is an extremely important pillar of our democracy, but its infringement on free speech, on a woman’s ability to speak and choose for herself what her health care should look like, goes too far.