For the past two months, the news, both local and national, has been full of stories of insults and discrimination toward women. There is a pattern developing that cannot be denied; the gains that women have made in their personal lives and careers are under threat. There are many men in positions of great power in the media and in politics who want to turn back the clocks on women’s pay, women’s autonomy, and women’s health care. They show blatant disrespect for women.
Missouri law has required health insurers to cover birth control since 2001, but the Missouri House and Senate have voted to overturn that law by passing SB 749, a bill that allows employers to discriminate against women by refusing to provide insurance to cover contraceptives and sterilization.
When 60-year old Rush Limbaugh called 30-year old law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and demanded she post online videos of herself having sex, it wasn’t personal. He didn’t even know her, nor did his words have any relationship to her actual testimony. He was insulting every woman who uses or has used modern forms of contraception (99 percent of us). He equated the use of contraception with sexual addiction and prostitution.
Some have argued that he is just a shock jock entertainer not be taken seriously. But his tactic of making sexual insults against a woman because he disagrees with her policy on public health should be examined carefully. This barbaric rhetoric sinks into the public consciousness and does real damage to women and to our society. These very public messages work on women’s psyches to produce shame and silence about their health care needs.
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The reality is that the advent of the birth control pill has been exceptionally good for women. Researchers at the University of Virginia recently released a report (March 2012) showing that women who go on the pill between ages 18 to 21 have an 8 percent higher income by age 50. These are the exact ages that most unplanned pregnancies happen, so preventing those pregnancies, which often interrupt higher education, gives women a real advantage toward ultimate career and financial success. It is no accident that women began working outside the home in greater numbers in exactly the same decade that the birth control became available.
A career not only produces financial stability, but also generates personal autonomy and sense of accomplishment. How many of those reading this journal would be where they are without access to the pill? Perhaps in this recession this is exactly what some men fear-that women are becoming too talented, too great a presence in the marketplace.
The current backlash against women is falling under the creative new smokescreen of “religious liberty.” We have heard the religious arguments against contraception for 50 years, but women, public health officials, and legislators generally favored common sense and personal choice over ideology from an earlier century. But in this election year, common sense seems a distant memory as religious zealots seek to control whether a woman can access affordable contraception, whether she has a choice in which contraception to use, and whether she has to disclose her prescriptions and medical conditions to her employer.
Some of these zealots argue that pregnancy is not a disease and therefore preventing pregnancy is not health care. But pregnancy does have real health implications, both simple and complicated. A pregnancy can be life-threatening, but even a routine pregnancy causes bodily changes that may call for medical remedies. Women younger than 21 and older than 35 face the possibilities of more medical complications due to pregnancy. Childbirth itself can be a difficult medical procedure, and a woman with a new baby has lower immunities due to lack of sleep and changes in her hormones. Women are healthier if they space their pregnancies in such a way that allows the body to regain its full strength between nursing one child and conceiving another. A study by the American Association for the Achievement of Science (February 2012) showed that taking hormonal birth control, even with all of its publicized side effects, is medically safer than pregnancy.
Some employers may be excited about the chance to reduce their insurance costs by refusing to cover contraception, but if so, they aren’t thinking ahead. Contraception is far cheaper than maternity care. And it is far cheaper than child care and maternity leave. Contraception is good for business. It allows female employees to carefully plan their children in such a way that it does not disrupt their careers. It keeps them on the job longer between pregnancies so that they develop stronger job skills and make long-term contributions to the stability of their company.
Contraception is also good for the state and federal budgets. The Guttmacher Institute reports that the United States has the highest rate of unplanned pregnancy (49 percent of all pregnancies are unplanned) among the industrialized nations and that we spend over $11 billion dollars in government money on those pregnancies. How much higher will these numbers soar if contraception costs are not covered by insurance?
Limiting access to contraception and publicly shaming women who use contraception is, quite simply, bad policy. It’s bad for the government, bad for business, and bad for women. We cannot be persuaded that the medical needs of a woman in any way restrict the religious freedom of her employer. Nor can we be persuaded that the religious preference of the employer should in any way interfere in the private medical affairs of the female employee.
We have come too far in our advancements toward women’s equality to allow this backward motion.