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.”

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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 Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.

Commentary Contraception

Hillary Clinton Played a Critical Role in Making Emergency Contraception More Accessible

Susan Wood

Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second-chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Clinton helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

In the midst of election-year talk and debates about political controversies, we often forget examples of candidates’ past leadership. But we must not overlook the ways in which Hillary Clinton demonstrated her commitment to women’s health before she became the Democratic presidential nominee. In early 2008, I wrote the following article for Rewirewhich has been lightly edited—from my perspective as a former official at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about the critical role that Clinton, then a senator, had played in making the emergency contraception method Plan B available over the counter. She demanded that reproductive health benefits and the best available science drive decisions at the FDA, not politics. She challenged the Bush administration and pushed the Democratic-controlled Senate to protect the FDA’s decision making from political interference in order to help women get access to EC.

Since that time, Plan B and other emergency contraception pills have become fully over the counter with no age or ID requirements. Despite all the controversy, women at risk of unintended pregnancy finally can get timely access to another method of contraception if they need it—such as in cases of condom failure or sexual assault. By 2010, according to National Center for Health Statistics data, 11 percent of all sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 had ever used EC, compared with only 4 percent in 2002. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all women ages 20 to 24 had used emergency contraception by 2010.

As I stated in 2008, “All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.”

Now, there are new emergency contraceptive pills (Ella) available by prescription, women have access to insurance coverage of contraception without cost-sharing, and there is progress in making some regular contraceptive pills available over the counter, without prescription. Yet extreme calls for defunding Planned Parenthood, the costs and lack of coverage of over-the-counter EC, and refusals by some pharmacies to stock emergency contraception clearly demonstrate that politicization of science and limits to our access to contraception remain a serious problem.

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Today, women are able to access emergency contraception, a safe, second chance option for preventing unintended pregnancy in a timely manner without a prescription. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) helped make this happen, and I can tell the story from having watched it unfold.

Although stories about reproductive health and politicization of science have made headlines recently, stories of how these problems are solved are less often told. On August 31, 2005 I resigned my position as assistant commissioner for women’s health at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the agency was not allowed to make its decisions based on the science or in the best interests of the public’s health. While my resignation was widely covered by the media, it would have been a hollow gesture were there not leaders in Congress who stepped in and demanded more accountability from the FDA.

I have been working to improve health care for women and families in the United States for nearly 20 years. In 2000, I became the director of women’s health for the FDA. I was rather quietly doing my job when the debate began in 2003 over whether or not emergency contraception should be provided over the counter (OTC). As a scientist, I knew the facts showed that this medication, which can be used after a rape or other emergency situations, prevents an unwanted pregnancy. It does not cause an abortion, but can help prevent the need for one. But it only works if used within 72 hours, and sooner is even better. Since it is completely safe, and many women find it impossible to get a doctor’s appointment within two to three days, making emergency contraception available to women without a prescription was simply the right thing to do. As an FDA employee, I knew it should have been a routine approval within the agency.

Plan B emergency contraception is just like birth control pills—it is not the “abortion pill,” RU-486, and most people in the United States don’t think access to safe and effective contraception is controversial. Sadly, in Congress and in the White House, there are many people who do oppose birth control. And although this may surprise you, this false “controversy” not only has affected emergency contraception, but also caused the recent dramatic increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses, and limited family planning services across the country.  The reality is that having more options for contraception helps each of us make our own decisions in planning our families and preventing unwanted pregnancies. This is something we can all agree on.

Meanwhile, inside the walls of the FDA in 2003 and 2004, the Bush administration continued to throw roadblocks at efforts to approve emergency contraception over the counter. When this struggle became public, I was struck by the leadership that Hillary Clinton displayed. She used the tools of a U.S. senator and fought ardently to preserve the FDA’s independent scientific decision-making authority. Many other senators and congressmen agreed, but she was the one who took the lead, saying she simply wanted the FDA to be able to make decisions based on its public health mission and on the medical evidence.

When it became clear that FDA scientists would continue to be overruled for non-scientific reasons, I resigned in protest in late 2005. I was interviewed by news media for months and traveled around the country hoping that many would stand up and demand that FDA do its job properly. But, although it can help, all the media in the world can’t make Congress or a president do the right thing.

Sen. Clinton made the difference. The FDA suddenly announced it would approve emergency contraception for use without a prescription for women ages 18 and older—one day before FDA officials were to face a determined Sen. Clinton and her colleague Sen. Murray (D-WA) at a Senate hearing in 2006. No one was more surprised than I was. All those who benefited from this decision should know it may not have happened were it not for Hillary Clinton.

Sometimes these success stories get lost in the “horse-race stories” about political campaigns and the exposes of taxpayer-funded bridges to nowhere, and who said what to whom. This story of emergency contraception at the FDA is just one story of many. Sen. Clinton saw a problem that affected people’s lives. She then stood up to the challenge and worked to solve it.

The challenges we face in health care, our economy, global climate change, and issues of war and peace, need to be tackled with experience, skills and the commitment to using the best available science and evidence to make the best possible policy.  This will benefit us all.

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