News Contraception

Birth Control Blasphemy: Contraceptive Hysteria Grips Congress and the Religio-Patriarchy

Jodi Jacobson

The United States Congress is in the grip of contraceptive hysteria, and there are no signs of early recovery. Far right members of the House and Senate have decided that there is Nothing. More. Important. than making sure women in this country can not get access to birth control.

See all our coverage of the 2012 Contraceptive Mandate here.

The United States Congress is in the grip of contraceptive hysteria, and there are no signs of early recovery.

Far right members of the House and Senate have decided that there is Nothing. More. Important. than making sure women in this country can not get access to birth control. Given that contraceptive use is effectively universal and that most employer-purchased group health plans already cover contraception, it is a pretty far stretch to assume any support for this outside the Rayburn Building, but that never stops a fanatic.

Let’s recap some basics here. Ninety-eight percent of sexually-active women in the United States use contraception at some point in their lives (including, yes, 98 percent of Catholic women), and most do so for the majority of their reproductive years. This is so we gals can do such radical things as plan whether, when, and with whom to have a child; how many children to have; decide what educational, social and economic goals we want to attain for ourselves and maximize those opportunities we can give our children; and, just basically decide how to live our lives. You know… that whole freedom thing.

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To have a total family size of two or three children, the average woman will spend five years pregnant or trying to get pregnant, and nearly three decades trying to avoid pregnancy. (Yes, Cardinal Dolan, we know about abstinence, but thirty years is a long dry spell and we like sex.) Many women also require contraception as a medical intervention to treat problems like poly-cystic fibrosis and dysmenorrhea, among other conditions. Some need to avoid risky pregnancies. And… the vast majority of women using contraception are protecting themselves and their partners from unintended pregnancy. In other words, folks, the gals are using the contraception, but the guys are involved here, too. The whole it takes two to tango thing, you know. I am not getting into the whys and wherefores of women shouldering most of the responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancies here. But the fact is women are not just protecting themselves, but their partners and frequently their families writ large from the burdens of unintended pregnancy. This is also part of the equation that kinda, you know, gets left out. Including for those Congressmen whose wives and partners clearly have been using some on the side.

Most insurance plans already cover contraception because it makes economic sense. Roughly 86 percent of all group health insurance plans purchased by employers for their employees–or almost nine in ten plans–now cover a full range of prescription contraceptives. In states with contraceptive-equity laws, contraceptive coverage has expanded dramatically and insurance plans in these states are more likely to provide a full range of contraceptive methods. According to NARAL Pro-Choice America, state contraceptive-equity laws have a positive influence everywhere because nationally-determined insurance plans, in use both in states with and without contraceptive-equity laws, typically provide contraceptive coverage in all states in accordance with the mandates.

Still, in 2006, according to NARAL, 36 million U.S. women were without insurance coverage for contraception. Of that number, approximately 23 million were non-Hispanic white, five million were non-Hispanic black and six million were Hispanic. Inadequate access to contraception carries substantial health risks for all these women. The recurrent cost of contraception is the single most important barrier to access cited by women at risk of unintended and unwanted pregnancy.

But anti-choicers in Congress and among the religious right have repeatedly shown three things:

  • One, they could not care less about women’s health and rights.
  • Two, they have absolutely no idea how women struggle with the costs, risks, and responsibilities of reproduction nor what it means to do so.
  • Three, they don’t like to let reality or facts get in the way of ideology.

The real issue is that, as with the created controversy over health reform and abortion, the birth control mandate has provided all of these actors with an opening to do something they have been itching to do since the sixties: Limit women’s access to birth control. And they see this whole hoopla as the single most effective way to dramatically curtail the share of women who now have insurance coverage for contraception. In other words, as with insurance coverage of abortion care, they want to take away coverage women now have.

It’s not about religious freedom. That is a red herring if ever there was one, as this piece by a former Quiverfull member so elegantly states. In fact, the hypocrisy of all of this is underscored by the fact that even Catholic institutions have been providing coverage of birth control in many states for years, and 28 states have contraceptive equity laws that require coverage either by everyone or under scenarios on which the Obama Administration based last week’s “accommodation” to the bishops.

No… it’s about putting women back in their place. Its about a deep-seated anger among male patriarchal figures that women have moved out into the world, can control their ferility and make their own decisions. It is about “biblical” beliefs that men should have dominion over women and children and that women should “sacrifice” themselves at all costs. It is also about unspoken but deeply-rooted racial and ethnic prejudices that rest on fears that on one hand, one or another religious or racial group will outpace another in population size, and on the other hand, that there aren’t enough babies being produced to keep wages down in the long run.

And as with the abortion debate in health care reform, the arguments being made about the birth control mandate bear no resemblance to reality. To shore up its arguments, for example, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has taken it upon itself to redefine as abortifacients virtually every form of medically-accepted modern contraception on the market. (It’s the Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Make Up Your Own Facts When Necessary to Preserve the Patriarchy.) The USCCB has also moved from its previous and highly transparent “religious freedom” tantrum, during which it claimed it wanted to exempt from the birth control mandate any religiously-affiliated institutions that ostensibly provide medical care, education, and social services, to its current demand that any employer, anywhere, be able to deny women contraceptive coverage, for basically any reason.

And so we have the latest attacks on contraception in the House and Senate.

First, there is the Blunt Amendment.

Senator Roy Blunt (R-MO), has proposed an amendment to the Senate Surface Transportation bill and given it a name which would make George Orwell proud, The Respect the Rights of Conscience Act of 2011. This amendment, which may be voted on as early as Wednesday, February 15th (today, perhaps, as you read this), would, according to experts, give employers and health insurance companies carte blanche over peoples’ access to basic health care. If passed, the Blunt amendment would represent the single most expansive refusal provision in federal law, and it would dismantle hard-won protections in the Affordable Care Act.  It would allow any employer or insurance plan, with or without religious affiliation, to refuse to cover any essential health service required under the new health care law based on undefined religious or moral objections. Supporters of the amendment have made clear the intent of the amendment is to ensure that any employer or corporation is able to deny its employees birth control coverage.

This means, according to Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA), that “employers and insurance companies can not only deny access to birth control, they can deny access to any health care service, including HIV/AIDS treatment, mammograms, cancer screenings, or maternity care.”

The Blunt proposal is not limited to religiously-affiliated entities. Any employer or health plan issuer can claim an exemption based on this vague and harmful standard. For instance, an owner of a business franchise could refuse to provide coverage for birth control or any other essential or preventive health care service to which they claim an objection.

If passed, it would create a giant loophole undermining the whole notion of health insurance. “Health insurance coverage is rooted in the principle of shared risk and shared protection,” says PPFA. “The Blunt proposal dismantles the very concept of health insurance by allowing health insurance companies and employers to take coverage away from people, even for the most basic health care.”

“The purpose of the Affordable Care Act is to give women and families, not insurance companies, more control over their own health care decisions while ensuring that all health plans are playing by the same rules and providing a baseline of coverage for the American people.”

But “the Blunt proposal is designed to undermine this core principle and would represent an enormous step backwards for millions of American families.” The Coalition to Protect Women’s Health is collecting signatures from women and men throughout the country in opposition to this amendment, and is working with more than 80 groups, ranging from reproductive health and justice organizations to HIV prevention and treatment to labor organizations and medical academies such as the American Public Health Association and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, to defeat it.

Guess who is in favor of this proposal? The USCCB, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the National Right to Life Committee and the entire “Who’s Who” of religious right and fundamentalist notables. Never mind all those other Catholic teachings, birth control is the end of the world as we know it.

Or… the end of the world as they want it.

On top of the Blunt Amendment come hearings in the House of Representatives set for this Thursday, February 16th. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has announced that the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hold a hearing entitled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” In keeping with the barely veiled male-dominated discussion of male control over women’s lives, the witness list includes eight men and only one woman. And none of the witnesses has expertise on public health, medicine, or reproductive health.  Because like I said, why let things like medical conditions, public health, or the lives of women get in the way of a good election-year ideological battle?

Add to this the fact that Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) took to the floor of the House of Representatives last week to announce that he would do everything in his power to overturn the contraceptive mandate–not to offer job creation strategies, not to deal with poverty, hunger, access to education, not to address climate change or the housing mortgage crisis but to deny women access to birth control; that Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul all are in a contest to become the “most misogynistic presidential candidate ever;” and that every male media anchor on cable and regular television news channels is in a frenzy about the birth control mandate but doesn’t stop to consider they know nothing about contraception (that’s your department, dear) or public health and not one of them seems to care, and you have what is clearly a frenzy of the fearful patriarchy.

And they call women hysterical?

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Visit the Coalition to Protect Women’s Health to take action.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.