Commentary Contraception

When They Say “It’s Not About Birth Control,” You Know… It’s About Birth Control

Christine Adams

The recent controversy over insurance coverage for contraception has vividly made the point that feminists have argued for years. The culture wars over reproductive rights never have been primarily about fetal personhood, the right to life, or now, religious freedom: they have always been about the control of women’s bodies and sexuality.

In his comments to the Senate during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, Dale Bumpers noted that “H.L. Mencken said one time, ‘When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money.’ And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex.” The recent controversy over insurance coverage for contraception has vividly made the point that feminists have argued for years. The culture wars over reproductive rights never have been primarily about “fetal person-hood,” the right to life, or now, religious freedom: they have always been about the control of women’s bodies and sexuality.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when numerous states, and most western countries passed and more aggressively enforced laws against birth control and abortion, male legislators felt no need to pretend these laws were about anything other than controlling women’s sexuality, or harnessing their wombs in the service of the state.

The Comstock Act of 1873 took the issue to the federal level, and defined any information about contraception or abortion as “obscene” and “illicit”—it was this law that Margaret Sanger put to the test by disseminating information on birth control. In1920, French legislators criminalized birth control, prohibited all distribution, advertisement, and promotion of female contraceptives, and stiffened penalties for abortion. The French pro-natalist campaign had emerged in the wake of France’s defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. Consequently, politicians linked the issue of birth control with those of morality, national strength, economic growth, and protection of the family.

Feminists such as Nelly Roussel, who tried to decouple sexuality from maternity, could not persuade the public that “voluntary motherhood” was preferable to coerced motherhood. Historian Elinor Accampo quotes a conservative newspaper editor who denounced Roussel in tones reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh’s recent attack on Sandra Fluke, writing that “these sorts of viragos, unsexed women who saturate literature and modern politics . . . mount their pens like they would mount a broom to go to a midnight orgy. Sterile or scorned, they avenge their disgrace by insulting Nature.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

In the American context, until Roe vs. Wade, restrictions on both birth control and abortion were most often linked to arguments about the selfishness of women, the danger of rewarding the wages of sin, eugenics, and the need to control female sexuality. The changes in women’s status that both led to and resulted from greater reproductive freedom made it more difficult for opponents of reproductive rights to explicitly continue this line of attack. Hence a new focus in 1970s and 1980s on the fetus as an innocent being, separate from the woman carrying it.

Pro-life activists also concentrated on the sexually active teenage girl, enacting new laws that would enhance parental control over their daughters’ sexual behavior. Institutions affiliated with the Catholic and other churches fought for “conscience clauses” that permit them to deny reproductive services they find offensive, while pharmacy employees claimed the right to refuse to sell items that violate their beliefs. However, as both Rosalind Petchesky and Rickie Solinger have made clear, ideas about how “proper women” should behave, both sexually and as mothers, still shape reproductive politics in the United States. Access to contraception and abortion represent the “emancipated woman,” more focused on her education and work than on family and child rearing. Rick Santorum made this connection explicit in recent comments, although he has tried to draw back from its implications in the face of outrage from even conservative women.

In recent years, the political right has tried to separate the issues of abortion and contraception, condemning abortion loudly while at the same time working quietly to make access to birth control more difficult and expensive. At the same time, in their rhetoric, they have tried to conflate birth control and abortion in the public’s mind—for example, in the case of Plan B. The recent insurance controversy has linked those two issues, but not to the advantage of pro-life and anti-contraception forces. Suddenly, women have been forced to confront the fact that the right even to birth control, which they considered long settled, is more fragile than they realized.

Since many continue to oppose a sexually active woman’s right to choose whether she becomes or remains pregnant, this debate will continue. But those who wish to make the case against reproductive rights should not be allowed to portray themselves simply as defenders of religious freedom or person-hood, or as desirous of giving women more information, as in the case of Virginia’s recently passed and medically suspect ultrasound law. They should publicly acknowledge that they believe that church and state have more compelling rights over a woman’s body then she does herself, and that the state has the right to endanger a woman’s health in the interest of controlling her sexual behavior. I’m not sure that’s a case that most legislators would care to make openly.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.