IN 1961 an activist named Estelle Griswold joined forces with Dr. C. Lee Buxton of Yale School of Medicine to do something radical: open a center to distribute information about birth control in New Haven, Connecticut.
Griswold and Buxton weren’t passing out any actual birth control devices—just information. And most of their clients were married couples. This didn’t matter to the state’s powerful Roman Catholic hierarchy. They cited an old law on the books that made it a crime in the state of Connecticut to distribute information about birth control and demanded that the clinic be shut down.
The law, which oddly enough had been championed in 1879 by P.T. Barnum (yes, the famous showman served time in the legislature), was only being sporadically enforced. But church leaders decided to go to the mat, and local law enforcement duly took their marching orders. They raided the clinic and shut it down.
That, of course, was exactly what Griswold and Buxton wanted. The matter went to court, and in 1965 the US Supreme Court handed down an important ruling in the case Griswold v. Connecticut. The high court, citing a fundamental right to privacy, ruled that government had no right to meddle in matters as personal as sexual behavior and a couple’s decision to engage in family planning. Connecticut’s anti-birth control law was struck down.
In 1972 the court extended the core finding in the Griswold case—sexual privacy—to include unmarried couples (Eisenstadt v. Baird). By this time, oral contraceptives in the form of birth control pills had become common, and responsible use of birth control was seen as a positive good. It was even encouraged by the federal government; the US Postal Service issued an 8-cent stamp in 1972 depicting a smiling couple flanked by two children. Atop the stamp were the words “Family Planning.”
The situation is much different today. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) recognized that contraception is an important part of women’s health care and mandated that it be provided in coverage plans at no cost—but the move sparked an aggressive pushback. For-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby insisted (incorrectly) that certain forms of birth control are abortion and refused to cover it. These secular, profit-generating corporations claimed that the birth-control mandate violated their religious freedom rights and sued to block the mandate’s application to them. Remarkably, they won at the Supreme Court.
Religiously affiliated nonprofit groups like hospitals and colleges piled on. The ACA allows them to opt out of the contraceptive mandate by filing a short form noting their objection. At that point, under a compromise crafted by the Obama administration, the federal government would arrange separate coverage at no cost to the nonprofit. Several of the nonprofits sued, arguing that the mere act of requesting an accommodation violated their rights.
The Trump administration isn’t interested in compromises and has signaled its intent to allow any entity—secular business or sectarian nonprofit—to drop birth-control coverage simply by stating a religious or moral objection to it. Potentially millions of American women could lose coverage, but this doesn’t concern the Trump administration. Instead, they insist, without providing any evidence, that free birth control is available through other avenues.
Trump & Co. are fact-challenged in many areas, but for the rest of us it’s useful to look at some data: Polls show that nearly all sexually active women in the United States use artificial forms of contraception at some point in their lives. The data also shows that 95 percent of men and women engage in sexual activity prior to marriage. Surveys further indicate that the average American who wants to have a family thinks that two or three children is the ideal number to have.
Add it all up: People have sex, most men and women don’t want large families, and most Americans rely on birth control to prevent that from happening.
That tells us that birth control is important. It’s important to women. It’s important to American society. It’s important to the world. Remember that stamp I talked about? When it was issued, a postal official told the New York Times, “We hope…this stamp will serve as a reminder to all members of our society…that a spiraling world population and the environmental and social ills that inevitably follow is everyone’s concern.”
Yet in the United States today, we seem bound and determined to make birth control harder to get for some women. What’s going on?
Part of this is simply the Puritan streak that’s always run through American society. I’ve heard otherwise rational people, when confronted with this issue, say something like, “Why should I pay for people to have recreational sex?” Maybe because just about everyone has recreational sex, and we all have a vested interest in ensuring that those activities don’t result in hordes of unwanted children?!
But there’s more behind this. Younger people who’ve grown up used to oral contraceptives—a medication so ubiquitous it’s simply called “the pill”—sometimes forget what life was like for women before it existed.
If you talk with older folks, they’ll often tell stories of how common big families were back in the day—six or seven children was not unusual. My own mother had nine, even though our family was in no way economically prepared for that. As a form of safe, affordable, and reliable birth control that, most importantly, a woman had the power to use on her own, the pill changed society in a profound way. The pill allowed women to plan when to have children and how many to have—or whether to have any at all. It was the first step toward true reproductive freedom for women, and it revolutionized society.
The forces of regression have never made their peace with that reality. Whether consciously or not, they’re still reacting to it and still working to undercut it. If you doubt that, consider this question: How many other medicines or medical procedures are subjected to a boss’s religious or moral veto? Is there a corporation anywhere in America that objects to paying for erectile dysfunction drugs because men use them for recreational sex?
The current attacks on birth control access aren’t about “religious freedom,” nor are they about abortion. They’re led mainly by men, and they’re designed to punish women for doing something those men did a long time ago—which is to take control of their sexuality and reproductive options.