The Other 99 Percent: Will Obama Betray Them?

See all our coverage of the Birth Control Mandate 2011 here

There is another 99 percent group in our country, distinct from but inextricably entwined with the now more familiar #99Percent, those everyday Americans, who–in such a brilliant framing by the Occupy Wall Street movement–are to varying degrees affected by the vast economic inequality that characterizes American society. I refer to the 99 percent of American women who have ever had sexual intercourse and have used a birth control method at least some of the time. (As per the original Centers for Disease Control report, this statistic only includes contraceptive use reported by women during heterosexual intercourse).

Contraception obviously is a deeply held value by American women. But the fact that in the United States a startling half of all pregnancies are unintended makes clear that birth control is used only sporadically by some. There are a number of reasons why this is so, but a chief one is that so many women cannot afford contraception, especially the most expensive—and most effective–methods, such as birth control pills, and long lasting reversible contraception, for example, the newer (and far safer) models of IUDs (intrauterine devices).  In short, the same economic disparities that pervade every other area of American life manifest here as well: poor women depend on publicly-funded programs for their contraceptive services, but, according to the Guttmacher Institute, only a little more than half of the 17 million women who need these services currently receive them.

This situation of tremendous inadequacy was supposed to improve considerably. In one of the best pieces of news in the otherwise embattled reproductive health world since the battles over health care reform began, the Obama administration announced last August that it would accept the recommendations of a special panel of the Institute of Medicine and include contraception—including all FDA-approved birth control methods—as part of the basic package of preventative health services that health insurance plans must offer, without co-payments.

Predictably, the August announcement has produced a massive campaign from opponents of contraception, especially the Catholic hierarchy. Though churches in fact have been granted an exemption from this requirement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its allies are pushing for much broader exemptions, for example  to universities, social service agencies and other institutions with a religious affiliation—even if these institutions receive public funding.  Such a move could potentially affect millions of women, of all religious backgrounds (or none), who work in such institutions.

My young friends who have been involved in the Occupy movement tell me that issues of reproductive justice have been muted, if evident at all, at the various Occupy sites. But as the occupiers put forward their vision of a just society, the old feminist dictum bears repeating: women cannot be full participants in any society unless they can control their fertility. The New York Times quotes the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, reporting on a meeting with President Obama, as saying the latter “was very open to the sensitivities of the Catholic community.”  President Obama, please be open as well to the tremendous struggles of women–members of both 99 Percent groups–who are desperate to control their childbearing in very harsh times.


These groups urge you to take action:

Catholics for Choice

National Women’s Law Center

Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health

Feminist Majority Foundation

Emily’s List

Planned Parenthood Federation of America

NARAL Pro-Choice America

Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health

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  • hthompson

    I appreciate the importance of raising the issue of birth control in the occupy movement, but let’s not be so fast to claim our own “99%” that we erase the experiences and diverse reproductive health needs of sexually active women who do not have (and have not had) sex that carries the risk of pregnancy (generally, but not exclusively, lesbians).

    This piece reproduces the oversight made by the Guttmacher fact sheet it references in claiming that 99% of sexually active women have used some form of birth control. The original CDC source specifies, “This report only includes contraceptive use reported by women during heterosexual intercourse” (p. 2); however this important fact was not picked up by either the Guttmacher fact sheet or this article. This “oversight” reflects the heterosexism in our society that works its way into our feminist and reproductive rights movements (as well as most other progressive movements). A very quick calculation (even allowing for the large number of queer women who have had or do have sex with cisgendered men) told me that 99% could not be right and sent me looking for the original source.

    My comment here is not intended to diminish the importance of the birth control argument either to women who have heterosexual sex or to the progressive and/or feminist movement as a whole. Rather, it is to say what should not have to be said: Not all sexually active women have or have had heterosexual sex. The “other 99%” argument could still be made with a simple (but important) clarification about the group that it describes.


  • carole-joffe

    Dear HThompson, thank-you for your comment. You are of course absolutely right–ie not all sexually active women are heterosexually active! I meant my sentence to suggest that OF those women who are heterosexually active, 99% have used bc at one point or another. Thank-you for the opportunity to reaffirm this point. carole

  • jodi-jacobson

    It is an important point of clarification that can easily be amended in the article and with Carole’s permission we will do so.

    It is indeed 99 percent of women engaging in heterosexual sex, which does not even mean they are “heterosexual” by common definitions, but rather that they are at risk of pregnancy in consensual sex acts in which they are engaging and therefore use or have used contraception.

    Thanks so much.

    As always,



  • artdyke

    For what it’s worth, I’m a lesbian on birth control. ;)


    Cramps are a real bitch.

  • carole-joffe

    Thanks for comment, artdyke. As the Guttmacher Institute recently reported, 14% of pill users in the U.S. use them for noncontraceptive purposes, as you do. carole