Sunday, May 07, 2006

Morality and Contraception

(Cross-posted at Feminist Law Profs. I will of course continue to post on other topics here)

The NY Times reports on the next culture war: It is a very long, very interesting article that tracks the the conservative anti-choice movement’s open rhetorical shift to an assault against contraception. It is a shift in moral emphasis from “a culture of life” to “sexual morality first, health last” with dire consequences at home and abroad, and the article compares the sexual politics and abortion/birth rates between the U.S. and Europe:


It is difficult to state precisely when this rethinking began, but George W. Bush’s victory in 2000, which was aided mightily by social conservatives, came around the same time that the abortion pill and the emergency contraception pill reached the market, and that convergence of events might be seen as the beginning of a new chapter in the culture war. State legislatures are debating dozens of bills surrounding emergency contraception, or the “morning-after pill”: whether pharmacists have the right to refuse to fill orders; whether it should be made available over the counter; whether Catholic hospitals may decline to provide it to rape victims. To the dismay of many public-health officials, and following the will of conservative Christian organizations, the Bush administration has steadily moved the federal family-planning program in the direction of an abstinence-only-until-marriage program.

Some conservative groups and some Republicans in Congress have waged a campaign against condoms in recent years, claiming they are less effective than popularly believed in preventing pregnancy and protecting against sexually transmitted diseases. Important international health experts say the Bush administration has used the government’s program for AIDS relief to transmit its abstinence message overseas, de-emphasizing condoms and jeopardizing the health of large numbers of people, especially in Africa. A regulatory challenge has been filed with the F.D.A., and a push by some Republicans in Congress is under way to suspend the sale of the abortion pill (also known by the brand names RU-486 or Mifeprex) on the grounds that it is unsafe. The lead counsel in this challenge, however, admits the underlying motivation is opposition to abortion. Meanwhile, the
abortion pill and the emergency contraception pill — because of their ease of use, the mechanisms by which they work and the fact that they are taken after sex — have blurred the line between contraception and abortion and have added a new wrinkle to the traditional anti-abortion movement.

Many Christians who are active in the evolving anti-birth-control arena state frankly that what links their efforts is a religious commitment to altering the moral landscape of the country. In particular, and not to put too fine a point on it, they want to change the way Americans have sex. Dr. Stanford, the F.D.A. adviser on reproductive-health drugs, proclaimed himself “fully committed to promoting an understanding of human sexuality and procreation radically at odds with the prevailing views and practices of our contemporary culture.” Focus on the Family posts a kind of contraceptive warning label on its Web site: “Modern contraceptive inventions have given many an exaggerated sense of safety and prompted more people than ever before to move sexual _expression outside the marriage boundary.” Contraception, by this logic, encourages sexual promiscuity, sexual deviance (like homosexuality) and a preoccupation with sex that is unhealthful even within marriage.It may be news to many people that contraception as a matter of right and public health is no longer a given, but politicians and those in the public health profession know it well. “The linking of abortion and contraception is indicative of a larger agenda, which is putting sex back into the box, as something that happens only within marriage,” says William Smith, vice president for public policy for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. Siecus has been around since 1964, and as a group that supports abortion rights, it is natural enemies with many organizations on the right, but its mission has changed in recent years, from doing things like promoting condoms as a way to combat AIDS to, now, fighting to maintain the very idea of birth control as a social good. “Whether it’s
emergency contraception, sex education or abortion, anything that might be seen
as facilitating sex outside a marital context is what they’d like to see
obliterated,” Smith says.

A December 2004 report on federally financed abstinence-only programs conducted by the office of Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, charged that the major programs presented misleading information about health (one curriculum quoted in the report stated that “condoms fail to prevent H.I.V. approximately 31 percent of the time”), state beliefs as facts (the report cited a curriculum that refers to a 43-day-old fetus as a “thinking person”) and give outmoded stereotypes of the sexes. All parents struggle with how to shield their children from the excesses of popular culture, and not surprisingly, surveys show that most want teenagers to delay first intercourse. But by wide margins they also say kids should be taught about contraceptives. A poll released in 2004 by National Public Radio, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government found, for example, that 95 percent of parents think that schools should encourage teenagers to wait until they are older to have sex, and also that 94 percent think that kids should learn about birth control in school.

I am fortunate enough to live in the State of California, which provides basic gynecological and family planning care, in addition to a year’s supply of any contraception of your choice, if you are not self-insured or otherwise unable to pay for this care yourself. This limited insurance card can be renewed each year, as necessary. This service is available to women even if they are covered by their parents’ or husband’s health insurance, but wish to seek care that will remain confidential and will not be reported to anyone (a potential problem if insurance providers tend to notify plan owners of bills, deductibles, etc.) they do not wish to tell. This has been a life saving service that hardly anyone knows about or takes advantage of. I know about it because I was a campus feminist activist, and found out by reading through all the literature in the campus Women’s Center. I tried to make sure other women found out about it by making sure an ad was in each copy of the feminist newspaper I edited. I passed along the information in every sexual health talk I gave. I spread the word discreetly in private conversations. This was six years ago, when I was a junior in college. And all that time and thereafter, I kept wondering: why don’t people know about this? Maybe this article provides that answer to that six year old question.

I was a campus feminist. But I was (am) also an Asian-American woman, raised in a very strict Asian household with a domineering father. I was forbidden to socialize with men, much less date–even after I turned 18, even after I entered college. I lived at home during college, and it was easy for them to control my social life–and I had enough disinclination to hurt my parents that I for the most part obeyed their draconian rules. But I was not always so inclined to follow the rules, and despite their best efforts, I managed to date secretly, seriously my college sweetheart for three years. Despite my own “abstinence only” education and strict moral upbringing, I, like so many other young men and women, disobeyed and disregarded the rules. It happens. It has always been, and it will always be that young people will, despite your best efforts to guide them, make “mistakes,” ignore your teachings, and find their own path in life–right or wrong. I’m glad that though I did stray from the path of my fathers, I was able to guide myself, and protect myself–because the teachings I abandoned were no long applicable, and could no longer protect me on this new autonomous path. I am glad that because I was able to protect myself, I could keep my private life private, and my body my own business. I am glad that I never had to face the consequences of my father finding out about my “betrayal” — because I would have surely suffered at his hands, and I would have surely feared for my life. The pressures of growing up are enough without being denied the information, tools, and means with which to guide and protect ourselves as we make our own life choices. Never forget that it is your life, and your body. And though I am not an extreme moral relativist, I do believe that with regard to your body and heart, you should be your own moral guide. And never forget how much all of this “debate” is pure sexual politics, designed to rob you of that autonomy.