This year’s UN Population Fund’s annual report reiterates the long-accepted fact that access to contraception is a basic human right, making women’s rights and women’s health at the center of development. The document reflects a growing worldwide understanding that, as bell hooks titled her famous book, feminism is for everybody. When women can control their birth spacing and family size, they and their families have more economic opportunities and can better provide for the children they do have. No duh, right?
Well, unfortunately, the anti-choice movement in the United States presents the biggest obstacle for getting our country to embrace this common sense understanding of the value of contraception. Yes, they are coming for your birth control.
The latest battle in the war on contraception is being fought in Ohio, where the House Health and Aging Committee approved a bill to be sent to the floor that would de-fund Planned Parenthood, as well as other family planning groups that provide affordable contraception and reproductive health care to the women of Ohio. So far, these attempts to de-fund family planning have failed in the courts, though Texas has won a victory in the Fifth Circuit and could very well be successful in dramatically reducing (and perhaps eventually eliminating) funding to clinics that help low-income women afford contraception.
Invariably, these attacks on contraception are rationalized by the politicians mounting them with claims that this is all about abortion, even though the groups in question do not use government funding to provide abortion. One of the reasons that these attacks have failed in court is because the laws usually violate non-discrimination clauses that disallow governments to punish groups for having different views on abortion—which, may I remind you, is legal and ruled a right by the Supreme Court—by taking their funding. But Ohio’s bill goes about it in a different way, by killing the competitive grant process, and instead giving the money to public health departments and federally qualified health centers before non-public family planning clinics, even though the latter are usually far better at dispensing the kind of personalized gynecological care women need to control their fertility.
Because of this, we can see the “pro-life” mask slipping further. Even though the word “abortion” gets tossed around a lot, this bill makes it clear that the biggest sin of Planned Parenthood and other family planning clinics, in anti-choice eyes, is that they help women have better sexual health and control their family sizes. They aren’t even trying to tie this to abortion anymore, but blatantly objecting to a model of providing reproductive health care that’s been proven to work, precisely because they don’t want it to work.
Women go to family planning clinics not out of ideological reasons, but because these clinics represent their best opportunity for consistent, considerate reproductive health care at an affordable price. Dr. Kimberly Shepherd, a gynecologist who testified against this bill, described the situation by saying, “Planned Parenthood is a known entity for so many women. I don’t think women will have the same level of access because I don’t think they will go.” Women know that Planned Parenthood and other non-profit family planning clinics offer cheap contraception and well-woman exams, and many will likely have no idea where to go to replace that care if their clinics go away. Even if they do find public health providers who offer this service, those places tend to be overwhelmed with meeting a variety of health care needs for the community, making regular access much more difficult for women who need it.
Of course, making it difficult or impossible for low-income women to get contraception is the point. As the ongoing rancor over the HHS regulations qualifying contraception as no co-pay preventive health care has neatly demonstrated, conservatives view contraception—because it makes non-procreative sex an option—as a form of recreation, a luxury that should only be available to those who can pay full cost for it out of pocket. And not just the drugs or devices, either, but apparently also the doctor’s visits that often include STI and cancer screening, as well as basic care such as blood pressure and anemia screening. Couple their hostility towards poor people with a leering misogyny aimed at college women who often use family planning clinics because, duh, students don’t make much money, and you have a perfect storm of right wing anger and bigotry aimed at dismantling one of the biggest access points to contraception in our society.
It’s absolutely pathetic that anti-choicers target low income women and students to be objects for acting out their resentment about other people’s sex lives. Obviously, sex is fun (and if it’s not, something is very wrong), but that doesn’t mean safer sex should be classified as a luxury good, instead of a near-universal human behavior that people tend to get to whether you like it or not. For one thing, contraception programs are understood by both those running them and those using them as being more about preventing pregnancy and preventing/treating disease than about facilitating sex, which both patients and providers tend to assume will be happening one way or another.
But even if contraception funding was primarily understood in the sexual framework, so what? Pro-choicers—liberals in general—should reject the assumption that pleasure is suspect underlying attacks on affordable contraception. The right to have sex on your own terms is one that should be enjoyed by all, regardless of income. Feeling the sun on your face is a pleasure, but that doesn’t mean that the poor shouldn’t have windows. Why should we treat access to safe, pleasurable sex any differently?