Refuting Powers: Many Obstacles To Contraceptive Access

Amanda Marcotte

Kirsten Powers lambasts Planned Parenthood on the assumption that birth control is easy to get. My recent experiences having access to the pill blocked demonstrate that even for privileged women, it most definitely isn't.

Kirsten Powers, the so-called feminist Democrat of Fox News, erased all doubt recently that she’s just a right-wing shill when she used the platform of The Daily Beast in an attempt to mainstream anti-choice arguments against contraception.  Powers, joining in the frenzy of hate towards Planned Parenthood, made a number of factual errors in her piece.  She only retracted one of her errors, because it regarded what year numbers she used were taken from.

But this retraction was mealy-mouthed, as she did not address the Big Lie of the piece: Powers argued that contraception access doesn’t reduce the abortion rate. Her claim that contraception doesn’t reduce and may in fact cause abortion was touted all over anti-choice websites, many who claim that contraception is a ruse designed to trick women into having sex and getting pregnant. Her claim is refuted here and here.  Pay special attention to how silly it is to argue that contraception doesn’t work by ignoring all the women who it worked for.  

To be fair to Powers, she never directly claims contraception doesn’t work if you use it correctly.  She simply insinuates that increased access doesn’t stop unwanted pregnancy, because she seems to believe there are no obstacles to access to contraceptive methods.  How it follows that taking away access is a good idea is not explained, but Powers is clear on one thing: she thinks there’s no reason whatsoever that anyone might interrupt regular use of contraception, outside of being irresponsible. She uses the fact that most women who have abortions have used contraception before to bolster this argument, though the fact that women go on and off contraception should indicate that their access is spotty at times.  

Well, I personally had an experience this week that refutes Powers’ implication that there are no barriers between modern women and contraception.  I was able to resolve this problem because of a number of privileges: I’m middle class, insured, able-bodied, and have a really flexible work schedule because I’m a professional writer.  (I will point out that Powers likely shares all my privileges.)  Being a pro-choice advocate also teaches a healthy distrust of authority.  Remove a single one of these privileges, and the odds are that I would have been forced to stop using birth control pills this month.  And going off pills means, at best, moving towards a less-effective means of contraception for many women (condoms, withdrawal), and in some cases with non-cooperative or abusive partners, not using any contraception at all. 

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Here’s what happened: I moved recently from one part of Brooklyn to another, so I had to switch pharmacies. When I tried to make this switch, the pharmacy informed me that to make a permanent prescription transfer, the doctor would have to approve it.  I figured this would be no problem, and planned to pick up my pills later that day. I was leaving town in 120 hours, and figured I had given myself lots of time to get my pills.  Even in Powers’ fantasy world, taking more than 120 hours to get contraception should be considered an undue burden. 

I got a message from the doctor’s office an hour later.  The message was confusing and garbled: The woman said that I hadn’t had an annual since September, so I needed to come in if I wanted the pills.  This is March, and as far as I can tell, “annual” means “once a year,” which is what I said when I called them back, with only 118 hours to go until I had to leave town, with or without my pills. The receptionist took my number and said a nurse would call back. 

By the next morning, with only 97 hours to go, I was furious.  I called again, and wasn’t being nice about it this time.  (Being willing to be the squeaky wheel is often a function of privilege that not every woman has.)  I made note of my impending travel, and explained firmly that if I didn’t get a phone call in 45 minutes, I would be calling every half hour until this was resolved.  Meanwhile, I had already rearranged my work schedule, canceling some non-essential plans, because I had to resolve this.  Being able to rearrange work plans—I have to work all weekend to make up for lost time—is a privilege few women have.  The doctor’s office did call me back, but they were firm.  I was not allowed to transfer a prescription I already had, because my doctor was on maternity leave.  Instead, I would be forced to come in and get a brand new prescription.  The first available appointment?  9AM on Monday, which would be 26 hours from when I was supposed to be walking out of the apartment, bag in hand.

That was cutting it unacceptably close, so what I did then was decide to go to my old pharmacy, figuring they still had my prescription and could fill it as is.  I gambled correctly, but accessing my old pharmacy meant walking the two miles there and back, something that I wouldn’t have been able to do if I was disabled, caught up in work obligations, or had child care needs, especially since it took a solid two hours during a work day to get it worked out. And if I did have to put it off resolving this until Monday, it would basically take the entire morning, between going to the doctor and going to a separate pharmacy, and going through the waiting periods.  Not everyone can bring their work to the waiting room of the doctor’s office like I can.

Needless to say, insurance makes all of these obstacles easier to surmount.  

These are unacceptably high requirements for uninterrupted access to contraception: Flexibility in scheduling, being empowered to self-advocate, being able to get around easily, and being able to afford the various expenses thrown in your way to get pills.  If you want to know why women are inconsistent with contraception, it’s because not everyone has all these privileges all the time.  Planned Parenthood grasps this reality, which is why they go out of their way to lower barriers, not only in terms of affordability, but also by trying not to give you the run-around like this.  Kirsten Powers would have you believe everyone who struggles with work schedules, child care or transportation, or funding is just stupid and lazy.  Don’t believe it. 

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