As expected, Barack Obama’s clever plan that allows women to both get the contraception coverage they’re entitled to while allowing a certain category of employers in thrall to misogynist dogma to avoid letting their precious dollars go to funding contraception has not pleased the Catholic bishops or the right wing media. This is for a very simple reason: This was never about religious liberty. It was always about three things: 1) An attempt to chip away at health care reform 2) a chance to assert their belief that an employer actually owns their employee and should be able to go so far as to control her sex life and 3) a deep-set fear and hostility to women’s liberation. It is the last that is strongest and most compelling to right-wingers. Now that the fig leaf of “religious liberty” has been taken from those who want to remove an individual woman’s religious liberty to decide for herself whether or not to use contraception, the rhetoric has returned to panicking over how contraception is something only dirty sluts use, making over 99 percent of American women dirty sluts.
The USCCB immediately reverted to attacking contraception as a great evil undermining society, stating that contraception is not preventive services on the grounds that “pregnancy is not a disease.” (Since the Catholic Church permits women to prevent pregnancy through abstinence, it’s clear this belief is only an inch deep, and a fig leaf for anti-sex attitudes.) They also falsely claimed that the policy covers abortion, a claim which in and of itself violates the Ten Commandments, specifically the one forbidding believers from bearing false witness. Sean Hannity lost it, characterizing the 99 percent of American women who have used contraception as not responsible. This group of supposedly irresponsible people almost surely includes Hannity and his wife, as they’ve only had two children, despite being married since 1993.
Why so much anger and fear from the right over this? We can eliminate their claims of “religious liberty,” since Obama addressed that. So why so scared? After all, contraception is, as noted, already widely popular. It’s not like making it free is going to usher in some new era where women are going to just start thinking they can have sex like free people. Women already think that. And even if they were able to get Obama to back down on the question of religiously-affiliated secular institutions like hospitals and universities, that would still mean the majority of women get co-pay-free contraception from their employers. So why all the fuss?
I think it’s because this is about more than birth control. This fight is much larger than that, and goes to whether or not we’re going to define women as full citizens whose right to live as free and empowered as men will be a priority for our government and society going forward. Liberals can often be the sorts who miss the forest for the trees. When we see “free birth control,” we mainly think in pragmatic, immediate terms about the effects: lower unintended pregnancy rates, lower abortion rates, health care savings, better educational and employment opportunities, money saved that women can invest in other ways, and more options for women. But the symbolic value of empowering women in this way can have even larger ramifications, and that is what I believe scares the right so much.
What happens once women of America spend a few years being able to get birth control without digging around in our wallets for it? One thing we know about human psychology is that the fear of losing what you have is greater than the fear of never having it in the first place. That’s because, once you have something, you feel entitled to it. And that’s what is going to happen after a few years of birth control being something for which you simply don’t pay out of pocket. Women of America are going to gradually become accustomed to the idea that contraception is something we’re entitled to have. Not just something we have a right to buy, but closer to our birthright as American citizens.
The distinction between something you simply have a right to have and something you’re entitled to have is subtle, but can be very powerful. Right now, contraception lives in a strange space in this country. On one hand, everyone uses it. On the other hand, there’s still a stigma attached to it. Young women feel anxious about getting birth control pills, and many people don’t carry condoms around when the should because it’s stigmatizing. Contraception is still seen as the active choice, in no small part because you have to pay money for it. Once most forms of birth control shift to being experienced as free, women will probably start to shift in their thinking about pregnancy. Preventing pregnancy will be the status quo, and making the choice to get pregnant will be start to seem more like the active choice. For privileged, college-educated women who can easily afford contraception, I think that shift is already underway. But it has the potential to be universal.
Because of this, the new policy has the potential to be up there with Roe v. Wade in signaling to American women that we really, truly own our own bodies. And that we are valued as full human beings, instead of seen as baby-makers/sex objects first and people second. We know that Roe had a huge impact on how American women saw themselves. Imagine the radical impact of a widespread entitlement to something women already use on a regular basis, i.e. contraception. No wonder the right is so scared.