Earlier this week, humanists and other reproductive rights advocates experienced a pivotal and much-needed win when the US Supreme Court struck down Texas’s unduly burdensome restrictions on abortion providers and clinics. But there is also more good news for women needing access to reproductive healthcare. Planned Parenthood and other healthcare providers are now offering smartphone apps that allow women to obtain birth control cheaply and conveniently.
Through apps like Lemonaid, women can avoid the onerous, time-consuming, and often expensive hassle of scheduling regular doctor visits to have their birth control prescriptions renewed. Instead, women can video chat with or call doctors who provide them with birth control prescriptions. Some of the apps then send the prescriptions to nearby pharmacies where women can pick them up, while others mail birth control to women. Some of these apps have modest fees, while others allow women to pay on a sliding scale. Some even accept insurance.
For women who have difficulty affording the doctor visits, co-pays, and other costs that come with accessing birth control, these apps can be the difference between using birth control or risking to go without it. Considering that 40 percent of pregnancies in the United States are unplanned, anything that can be done to help women have more control over their own bodies is certainly an improvement.
However, while reproductive rights advocates are rightly praising these new apps for empowering women and providing necessary reproductive care, they should also be critical of the underlying problems within our society that have created the need for such apps. Today is the two-year anniversary of the US Supreme Court’s ruling on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a decision that found that for-profit, family-owned corporations could refuse to provide birth control to their employees as part of basic healthcare, based on their religious beliefs. This decision still impacts women around the country, and within our wider culture, it promotes the idea that there is something shameful or immoral about using birth control. It also sets a dangerous precedent in which the government gives religious privileges to employers at the expense of the real healthcare needs of women. With the US Supreme Court having sent its most recent case about birth control access, Zubik v. Burwell, back to the lower courts, humanists will have to wait and see if the separation of church and state and women’s rights prevail against the latest attempts by conservative religious groups to restrict reproductive freedom.
Obtaining birth control through an app, while more convenient than a doctor visit, can also disadvantage women by giving them a reason to avoid regular gynecological exams. WebMD suggests that women over the age of twenty-one have a pelvic exam at least every three years, though depending on the state of a particular woman’s health and her medical history, she may need an exam more often. These regular exams are vital to women’s health because they promote early detections of cervical or breast cancer. For many women, their annual gynecological visit is also their only visit to a doctor, so many gynecologists also offer basic preventive care such as blood pressure and cholesterol tests as well as routine immunizations. Many women might prefer using an app to obtain their birth control, as it’s cheaper and doesn’t require them to take time off of work to visit a doctor. But by using the app, they’re missing out on other important aspects of reproductive and primary healthcare that only an in-person doctor visit can provide. Though obtaining birth control through an app is certainly better than women forgoing birth control completely, humanists and other reproductive rights activists should also ask themselves what can be done to make in-person gynecological exams more accessible to women so that they don’t miss out on cancer screenings and other necessary healthcare.
If women already had affordable and convenient access to birth control, then apps like Planned Parenthood Care, Lemonaid, or Maven, among others, would be unnecessary. Though they are an ingenious workaround to obstacles like religious employers that won’t provide birth control or religious pharmacists who refuse to dispense it, women should not need to face these obstacles in the first place. Birth control should be seen as a basic part of women’s healthcare, not as a separate aspect of women’s lives subject to scrutiny by the prying and judgmental eyes of religious leaders. These apps empower women to make decisions about what is best for them and their healthcare with the consultation of a doctor. However, we should strive to create a society in which women can make these decisions without resorting to circuitous solutions.