Denying Birth Control Denies Opportunity

Michael HiltzikI remember a woman friend of mine telling me that she had a difficult time getting men to use condoms for the sake of disease prevention. But when she added the fact that they could also get her pregnant without a condom, they changed their tune. So: potentially fatal disease, no problem; potentially life-changing child commitment, no way! These men understood that dying wasn’t as bad as having their entire lives derailed with an unwanted pregnancy. I think this story explains a lot about how men think. But even more important, it highlights the fact that birth control is an issue for men almost as much as for women.

Of course, it is broader than this. Birth control is a public health concern. A woman having a baby is a very expensive and potentially deadly thing. So it was with some consternation that I read a recent article by Michael Hiltzik, New Data: How the Attack on Contraceptive Services Targets the Poor. It is based on new data from the Guttmacher Institute that found that the percentage of women who need help affording contraceptive services keeps going up: from 16.4% of all women in 2000 to 20.0% in 2012. So the need has risen by 22% over that period, “But the number of those receiving assistance from publicly funded clinics fell by 9%.”

This is what liberals mean when they talk about the conservative war on women. This is all about efforts to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. Now I understand that conservatives claim this is all about their religious beliefs, but this flies in the face of facts. The 1973 Roe v Wade decision hardly caused a ripple in the evangelical community. But soon abortion because a big deal to them for reasons that entirely political. And now that their fight against abortion is going so well, suddenly the evangelical community find that they have a major problem with hormonal birth control and the IUD. Rubbish.

It highlights the fact that the conservative concern for women’s reproductive capacity has always been about something other than the fetus or even the pre-fetus. And that is where we get to the war on women. What exactly does depriving women of the most convenient forms of birth control do other than limit their choices? The rich don’t matter, because the rich always have choices. They have the choice to move to another country. But the choices of the poor can be limited. And by limiting reproductive choice, conservatives manage to limit all the other choices of young people—not just women.

Hiltzik provided a horrifying chart for unintended pregnancy rates from 1981 through 2006. What you see is that overall unintended pregnancy is flat. But this is because non-poor (>200% of poverty) women have seen their unintended pregnancy rates go way down; in 2006, it was half its rate in 1981. The rate of the poor and very poor have been going way up.

Unintended Pregnancy Rates 1981-2006 - Alan Guttmacher Institute

Now undoubtedly, this works both ways: poor women don’t have access to birth control and women saddled with unintended pregnancies tend to see their family’s earning potential reduced. But it doesn’t matter. Both are very good reasons to allow women more access to birth control. In fact, they are reasons to greatly increase our outreach to poor women to give them more information and resources. Hiltzik explained the situation in its most simple terms:

There is no more witless public-health position than one that targets women’s reproductive health. Preventing unwanted pregnancies pays off in multiples by reducing the burden on healthcare institutions and improving women’s work and career prospects and the health of their families.

But I’m afraid the whole point of the witless conservative public-health position is to damage not just women’s but men’s work and career prospects. Conservatives have a history of doing everything they can to limit what small opportunities the poor have through the use of social policy. And that’s all that’s going on with the current conservative attacks on Planned Parenthood and access to birth control.