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On Birth Control and the Line Between Morality and Legality


This post was originally featured on The Soapbox on October 9, 2012.

My attention was recently directed to a U.S. News article about how free birth control reduces the abortion rate. This might immediately strike you as a “yeah, duh” conclusion, and yet efforts to improve access to contraception—particularly attempts to require insurance coverage—have frequently been met with resistance. The argument has typically been on moral grounds: people either have a moral objection to contraception and believe they should not be required to help others get it, or they are uncomfortable with an implicit message condoning sex even if it is safe sex.

One of the hotly contested aspects of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) was its requirement that health insurance cover women’s preventative health services at no extra cost, including—you guessed it—FDA-approved contraception methods and contraceptive counseling. In particular, religious institutions considered it an infringement of their religious liberties to be required to provide access to contraceptive services. The act was later amended to provide exceptions in certain religious cases (churches are exempt, but religiously-affiliated hospitals and colleges are not). While perhaps a politically necessary move, I believe this undercuts the fundamental point that all women deserve the opportunity to receive preventative health care and family planning services.

…the choices associated with one person’s religion must not supersede another individual’s freedoms.

Detractors of the Affordable Care Act would claim that religion is an individual choice, and should not be legislated upon by the government. To that I would say, “I agree.” Religion is indeed an individual’s choice, and as such, the choices associated with one person’s religion must not supersede another individual’s freedoms. Just as the government would be overstepping its bounds if it were to require someone to act against his/her morals (within reason), one would be overstepping his/her rights in society to impose their morality on others.

It might seem that the refusal to offer insurance coverage for contraception is a passive act—that is, no one is standing at the pharmacy preventing women from getting birth control. This could not be further from the truth. For many low-income women, the very cost of contraception is prohibitive. Indeed, as the article points out, for many women, more expensive options were not adequately explained because they were not a realistic possibility, and frequently the “expensive” options simply had a greater up front cost that averaged out comparably to oral contraceptive pills. The point is that money is the key to access in this case, and refusing to comply with a legal mandate is an active barrier to access.

Beyond that—and returning to the crux of the article itself—by working to restrict access to contraception, many of these people are metaphorically shooting themselves in the foot. There is a great overlap in the population of people who are against contraception and those who are against abortion (though that is not to say it is 1:1 by any means). From the article itself:

Nearly half of the nation’s 6 million-plus pregnancies each year are unintended. An estimated 43 percent of them end in abortion.

Do the math. That’s a potential 1.3 million abortions that might be prevented by improving access to contraceptive care. It would seem that in the fight against broader use of contraception, people have lost sight of the bigger picture—I imagine most calm people could agree that abortion is a less desirable outcome than never having conceived.

It’s time to enter the 21st century. The data is out there. People do have unprotected sex. These encounters do lead to unplanned pregnancies. It’s time to stop pretending that if we cover our eyes and ignore these truths that they will somehow go away. It’s time to actually make an active step forward. If we can help these people—who are going to have sex whether you like it or not—be safer about it, we can work toward a goal that both liberals and conservatives can agree on: reducing the need for abortion.

  • AJ

    Anytime 49% of pregnancies (officially) are unplanned, something is being done wrong. If effective, long-term birth control was more accessible to more people, the world would be a far better place for reasons other than reduced abortions (which is a decent reason itself). How this isn’t a top priority, I’ll never know…besides, I wonder those who have a problem paying for others’ contraception have a problem with financing those who require government assistance because they have more children than they can afford? One’s a lot cheaper, you know.

    • Absolutely. People become so dogmatic about emotionally-charged issues that they fail to see the consequences of their position.

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