Conservatives Really Want to Make Us Believe Contraception Isn’t Health Care


Last week, there was a strange kerfuffle over access to contraception in the small town of Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Reports emerged suggesting that the local hospital, a Catholic facility, had forbidden any gynecologists associated with it—which meant all but one gynecologist in the town—from prescribing contraception to patients. Since then, the hospital has issued a confusing denial of sorts, which is generally being interpreted to mean that the doctors will be able to continue prescribing contraception as long as they do it in their private practices.

Whether that means the original story was just a rumor or this denial constitutes a quick backtracking from the Catholic hospital is a story for another time. But one thing that jumped out at me is that even in this retraction, the hospital administration insisted on using language that implies that contraception is not a normal part of health care. “Consistent with Catholic health care organizations, St. John Health System operates in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, and therefore does not approve or support contraceptive practices,” the hospital said in its statement, talking about birth control like it’s a rare and disreputable behavior, instead of a normal part of women’s health care.

It’s tempting to write off phrases like “contraceptive practices” as just another example of Catholic officials demonstrating how out of touch they are with the way that most people live their lives. (A recent example: A Catholic nun made headlines after stating that masturbation makes you gay, a statement which, read literally, would mean everyone is gay.)

The problem is that this kind of rhetoric, geared toward marginalizing contraception and trying to redefine it not as health care but as a sexual kink, is becoming a mainstream conservative preoccupation, especially in light of the Affordable Care Act listing contraception as a preventive care service that must be covered without a copay, creating a massive right-wing backlash.

There are plenty of examples in my podcasts from the past few months of the intense right-wing campaign to deny that contraception is health care, and make it seem like something only dirty girls use and that proper people can only acknowledge with shame or scorn. The purpose of all this is obvious enough: If contraception can be marginalized rhetorically, then it will be that much easier to make the case for restricting access. Certainly, if the right wing can frame contraception as a “lifestyle” choice, like watching porn or using sex toys, then it becomes much easier to strip away insurance coverage or federal subsidies to make contraception more affordable, all while playing dumb and pretending they’re not trying to take people’s contraception away.

Can this framing take hold? It’s an open question. On the one hand, more than 99 percent of sexually active women have used contraception at some point in their life, and 62 percent of women of reproductive age are currently using a contraceptive method. That level of ubiquity, plus the undeniable fact that pregnancy is a major medical event, makes it hard to imagine that the right could get very far with the attempt to kill our current understanding of contraception as a health-care decision and instead get people to think of it as a “lifestyle” choice.

Of course, abortion is also really common. It’s rare compared to contraception, which many women take on a continuous basis, but about one-third of women will have an abortion in her lifetime. Yet abortion is treated as far rarer and more marginalized than it is, with quite a few people not even realizing how many women they know who have had one. Women who have abortions usually don’t talk about it with most people in their lives; conservatives were able to shame and demonize women who have abortions to the point where such discussions are incredibly hard to have. Most of the discourse about abortion deals with the politics of it, rather than the experience of it. Because of all this, abortion has been successfully marginalized in health care, not covered by government insurance, and understood by most people to be a medical experience separate from your everyday health care.

It’s clear this is what the right is trying to do with contraception, and they have a potent weapon to do it: sexual shame. That’s why Mike Huckabee connected using contraception with being unable to control “libidos.” That’s why Sean Hannity is so insistent on talking about “free” condoms as an alternative to getting birth control from your doctor. He knows that few, if any, women are going to divulge the personal details of their sex lives that make relying on condoms (or only condoms) less than ideal for them. He also emphasizes getting condoms in bars—again, to separate contraception from mainstream health care and relocate it to a place where people go to drink alcohol. The implication is that non-procreative sex is like drinking, a fun but unhealthy behavior that shouldn’t be covered by health insurance. But sex really should be understood as something closer to eating, a natural part of everyday life that can be healthy or unhealthy, depending on how you do it. And in order to make it healthy, it needs to be considered an important part of health care.

All this can be derailed by having an honest, straightforward conversation about sex. These pundits get away with their sneering and implications of sleaze only as long as no one replies bluntly, “Yes, I have sex. Most people do, and usually quite frequently. Do you not know this?” That helps shift the shame burden back onto conservatives. They’re trying to hijack social shame about having a sexuality to punish and control.

Well, that goes both ways. There’s also a substantial social shame to being considered an uptight prude, or somehow sexually incompetent, especially as an adult. By forcing the issue and talking about sex as a normal, healthy part of most people’s lives, we can put conservatives on the defensive, and force them to explain why they don’t think that should be so. Believe me, they do not want to have this conversation. So we should make them have it.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte

  • DonnaDiva

    Anti-choicers get away with so much bullshit for precisely what you point out. They operate in a larger culture that is highly hypocritical and slut-shaming.

  • CBJ_Uno

    Amanda Marcotte,

    I will pay for your birth control if you pay for my condoms. Deal?

    • Shan

      CBJ_Uno,

      Ms. Marcotte either has health insurance via her employer, in which case she already does pay for whatever medically-prescribed birth control she needs via her insurance premiums. Or she doesn’t have health insurance via her employer, in which case she already pays for it all out of pocket herself. Or maybe she’s on Medicaid or some other program for some reason and all her healthcare is paid for via the Feds and/or State because they’ve figured it makes a lot more sense to cover contraception wherever possible than… Not covering it. None of which is ANY of your business as far as the contraceptive methods Ms. Marcotte or anybody else on the planet does or doesn’t use.

      Also, your condoms are and always have been your own responsibility, just like everybody else’s Band-Aids and Afrin and Ace bandages.

      • CBJ_Uno

        “Also, your condoms are and always have been your own responsibility,
        just like everybody else’s Band-Aids and Afrin and Ace bandages.”

        And your birth control is different how?

        Oh, that’s right. It isn’t. Pay up.

        • Ivy Mike

          Once again, because you were too lazy to read up on the issue at hand…

          Condoms are not prescription medication. They require no doctor’s approval or signature to obtain, and no in-office visit. Condoms can be used by and purchased by anyone of nearly any age.

          The same CANNOT be said of birth control pills.

          BC pills require a doctor’s visit, an exam, and a prescription. Not all women can use the same dosage or formula. The prescription must be renewed periodically, and re-initiated if the woman changes doctors or moves to another location. Condoms require none of this.

          Oh, and condoms are a great deal less expensive than most BC pills, and also don’t require the purchaser to deal with “conscience”-stricken pharmacists who like to make other people live by their superstitions.

          Your analogy is, bluntly, horseshit, even though you obviously think it’s amazingly clever and incisive.

        • Shan

          “And your birth control is different how?

          If I only used what I could get OTC at the pharmacy, it’s no different.

          How old are you, anyway?

    • Dez

      So women don’t work and pay for their own health insurance? Are you really saying that all women do not work and need you to pay for their birth control? Your argument is flawed and sexist.

      • Shan

        Or maybe he’s offering to pay her insurance premiums if she buys his condoms for him. That could work out as a good deal for Ms. Marcotte…unless CBJ-Uno is a sex-worker and goes through a couple dozen boxes a month. Although if that’s the case, I think the argument could be made that his EMPLOYER should be paying for his condoms. At the very least, he should be able to itemize them as a work expense on his tax return.

      • CBJ_Uno

        Hey, when my insurance covers my condoms then you get to talk.

        • Ivy Mike

          No, Genius, when condoms are PRESCRIBED BY and REQUIRE a doctor’s visit to obtain, THEN you get to talk.

          Your analogy, whilst it might have seemed clever inside the concrete ball of your skull, was completely incorrect, and its continued use marks you as an imbecile.

          Care to try again?

          • CBJ_Uno

            Sorry, bub, but whether or not a doctor prescribes it has NOTHING to do with whether insurance covers it.

            Try again.

            So unless Amanda Marcotte is going to pay for my PRESCRIPTION glasses (not covered under my insurance) then she can go pack sand. Oh, and I think I might go bald so I want some PRESCRIPTION finasteride. (not covered under insurance).

    • Ivy Mike

      Your condoms are prescribed by a doctor, like BC pills are? Interesting.

      Is that something that’s done when the normal-sized ones are too large?

  • Nicko Thime

    Viagra is health care, doncha know.

    • Shan

      I’d say so, yup.

  • http://open.salon.com/blog/bill_michtom michtom

    It’s important to NOT call these reactionary women- haters “conservatives.” They’re NOT. Unless you think conserving patriarchy qualifies.

  • expect_resistance

    Amanda I’m an avid listener of your podcasts and the last one was super awesome. Totally agree the antis are framing contraception as a “lifestyle” choice. What a joke. It’s healthcare and most women understand this. I wish everyone did.

    • Shan

      I wonder who picks up the healthcare tab for the “lifestyle choice” the Duggars made? From what I’ve read, it’s the Arkansas taxpayers thanks to Jim Bob’s stint in the legislature leaving him with a pension and health coverage for life. I haven’t been able to confirm that, though.

      • lady_black

        Giving birth is the ULTIMATE “lifestyle choice.” Of course anti-choice people would like to make that not a choice at all.

  • expect_resistance

    No, not propaganda but truth. There is a big difference. Your answer the problem is much to simplistic. There isn’t always an option to go somewhere else. Plus religions hospitals get funding from the federal government. If the religious organizations want to institute their believes on others then the government should stop providing funding.

    Despite the religious label, these so-called religious hospitals are more public than public hospitals. “Religious hospitals get 36% of all their revenue from Medicare; public hospitals get only 27%. In addition to that 36% of public funding they get 12% of their funding from Medicaid. Of the remaining 44% of funding, 31% comes from county appropriations, 30% comes from investments, and only 5% comes from charitable contributions (not necessarily religious). The percentage of Church funding for Church-run hospitals comes to a grand total of 0.0015 percent.” (From Merger Watch “No Strings Attached”

  • lady_black

    Nobody goes to a freaking hospital for contraceptives. But they DO go there to give birth, at which time many women opt for tubal ligation (especially if they’re ‘already in there’ for a C-section). Other women may chose to have an IUD inserted before they leave the hospital, or they will want to re-start the pills they haven’t been taking while pregnant, or the patch or ring, or have that shot of Depo or those implants placed. At the very least, she ought to be leaving with a prescription for birth control which will be given with her discharge instructions. When I was having children, a discussion about birth control took place while you were in the hospital. It was part of the care given by your OB/GYN. In short, if the doctor cannot do that, he/she is being forced to render sub-standard care to his/her patients. I’m very sorry to tell you this, but a hospital is NOT “a religious institution.” They are a secular business providing care to the ill and injured,and if they are accepting federal dollars (and they all do) that should preclude the mistreatment of women on account of the babbling of bishops.

    • Shan

      Women also go to hospitals after a sexual assault and Catholic hospitals won’t give them emergency contraception.

      • lady_black

        They will where the law requires it. And that SHOULD be “everywhere.”

        • Shan

          And so it should. I’m still pissed that the ACA allows for religious exemptions at all. It’s propped open the door for all the whiny asshats like Hobby Lobby. Feh.

  • Shan

    It’s not always an option to go to another hospital if your health insurance has designated a specific hospital as the “in network” provider. The year my company health insurance plan picked a local network of Catholic hospitals, I was really nervous. Thankfully, there were no issues and after that year was up, they went back to a regular “secular” hospital network.

  • Arekushieru

    So what if it was one of their main principles of belief? What about the beliefs of the individual parishioner? What about the FACT that their main principles of belief was built upon the backs of women?