Contraception is popular—very popular. That’s why Republicans are in so much of a bind lately, trying to placate the increasingly extremist anti-choice movement that demands more attacks on contraception, all while trying to convince the average American that they aren’t attacking contraception at all.
One result of this was a strange bit of business last week: Senate Republicans, beholden to their sex-hostile base, blocked a bill that would allow women to access contraception coverage directly through their insurers if their employers refused to cover it in plans through their standard employee benefits package. And then, to assure voters that they aren’t actually attacking contraception, those same Senate Republicans claimed to have another bill on offer to protect women’s ability to buy contraception. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) assured reporters that this new bill was totally pro-contraception: “Our bill will reaffirm that no employer can prohibit an employee from purchasing an FDA-approved drug or medical device,” she said.
However, she didn’t say how. Republicans currently support giving your employer the power to bar you from using your own insurance plan to pay for contraception, and they also want to give your employer the power to bar you from going directly to your insurance company to get contraception coverage.
Presumably, this bill would protect an employee’s right to use money out-of-pocket to buy contraception, but what if an employer also objects to that? After all your paycheck, like your insurance, is part of your compensation package. If your employer has a veto power over how you use your own insurance benefits—including disallowing you to go outside of the official plan offered at work—why not also argue that because they signed your paycheck, that money is off-limits? Would your “right” to “buy” contraception only come into play if you pay for it out of a separate checking account that you can demonstrate is only funded with money you got from some source other than your job? The abstract right to buy something is pretty meaningless now that the Supreme Court has opened the door to allowing your employer to control how you use the compensation given to you for working.
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Perhaps this promised bill will clearly state that benefits are the only part of your compensation package that your boss gets veto power over, and will clearly define paychecks as off-limits to employer control. If so, then I hope they pass it and shut down any hope of anti-choicers exploring the option of expanding employer power over how employees use their compensation package. That would really be something, since Republicans aren’t known for their enthusiasm for any laws protecting workers from management overreach.
But in the end it doesn’t really matter if this bill specifically singles out paychecks as protected from employer control or just affirms an abstract “right” to buy contraception. Even floating this bill shows how much the anti-choice movement is, at its core, just as much about reinforcing class hierarchies and preserving traditional gender roles as it is about punishing people for having sex.
By reducing birth control to a consumer product, Republicans can push the idea that “consequence-free sex” is a luxury item, like a nice car or designer jeans—something reserved for the well-off, instead of necessary medical care that should be available and affordable to all. This becomes especially clear when you realize that anti-choice employers also object to offering insurance plans that cover contraception counseling, meaning that if you want contraception and you work for an anti-choice employer, you will have to make an entirely separate visit to your doctor for the counseling, which you will then pay for in cash. Like your birth control.
Who has the time for that, much less the money? Not workers at Hobby Lobby, even at the highly vaunted $15 an hour (minimum) they earn.
Making contraception both expensive and time-consuming to acquire is an excellent way to signal that it’s only reserved for a fortunate few. It’s easy to picture the conservative definition of the “ideal” contraception user: A woman who has plenty of money and time, and who treats her contraception purchases much like her pilates class or a shopping spree. Ideally, she’s someone whose wealth flows from a husband and not from her own job. Indeed, wealthy women can afford to treat contraception like a consumer purchase item. But the rest of us who are busy and/or run our households on a tight budget are much better off treating contraception as part of regular medical care.
This kind of thinking from conservatives isn’t particularly well hidden. That’s what Fox News’ Jesse Watters was on about with his now-infamous complaint about “Beyoncé voters”: “You know, they depend on government because they’re not depending on their husbands. They need things like contraception, health care, and they love to talk about equal pay.” The not subtle implication here was that the only kind of woman who deserves consideration in our society is a woman who is financially dependent on a husband—in other words, a traditional housewife. It’s this mentality that leads to wanting to make contraception a consumer purchase item, available only to women who meet the impossibly high standard of securing a marriage to a man who makes enough money to run a household on his salary alone. (Watters also implied that even women who work full time and live independently are “dependent”—as if our employers are our daddies—but that’s something to unpack in another piece.)
So while Sen. Ayotte was trying to position the Republicans as not inherently anti-contraception with this bill, it’s important to be wary. The effort is part and parcel of a larger attempt to separate contraception from mainstream medicine, to reclassify it not as a medical service but as a consumer product like iPhones or nice shoes. This, in turn, will make it easier to chip away at contraception access, pushing the idea that, like these other fancy consumer goods, it should only be available to those who have the spare cash for “luxury” goods.