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Opposing Birth Control In the Name of Feminism? Really?

Louise Melling,
Deputy Legal Director and Director of Ruth Bader Ginsburg Center for Liberty,
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July 26, 2011

(Also posted to Feministing.)

Last week, the Institute of Medicine, an independent medical authority, recommended that birth control – more specifically, the full range of FDA approved contraceptives – be among the services covered by new insurance plans under the national health care reform law. If the recommendation is endorsed, birth control would be covered in all new plans without a co-pay, as would yearly preventative, primary care visits for women. It’s about time.

Imagine my surprise to read a piece coming out of an independent research center in Princeton, New Jersey by Helen Alvare saying that this recommendation was “the greatest attack on women’s freedom;” that separating sex from babies “does not in fact favor women’s preferences about sex, dating, or marriage;” and that contraception ‘leads to a market in which sex becomes the price women pay for even casual relationships with men; women are drawn into this market against their preferences, feeling they have no choice.’

Now imagine my outrage.

Where do we begin? Let’s see. Is it that Ms. Alvare thinks the methods that enable us to decide when and whether to have children limit women’s freedom? Is it that her conception of freedom for women means we can only have sex for the purpose of childbearing for the duration of our reproductive lives? Is it that Ms. Alvare thinks that women don’t have sexual desires separate from procreation? Is it that Ms. Alvare’s argument assumes that women who want their sexual relationship tied to marriage and children can’t act on that. Is it – perhaps most outrageously of all – that we can’t think for ourselves in the face of the availability of birth control? And the kicker – that we need Ms. Alvare to step in to keep birth control away from us so as to protect our freedom? That’s not my idea of freedom. Is it yours?

I am deeply offended by the vision of women she presents and the vision she tries to impose on us. I think women are smart enough to make decisions about whether and how to use birth control so as to suit their preferences about sex, dating, or marriage. I don’t believe women are “prisoners” of our sexuality. Rather, women are smart enough not to see the availability of birth control as posing a prisoner’s dilemma. I respect women enough to think that some of us have sexual desire and have no less right than a man to say so and act on it. I respect women enough to think that some of us want sex linked only to marriage and procreation and have every right to live our lives accordingly. In short, I think we can think for ourselves.

I don’t want to go back to the days of my mother – when women couldn’t control their fertility, when women who had sex or desire were derided, when women were supposed to have sex only for the purpose of having children.

The greatest threat to our freedom is not the availability of birth control, but rather of pundits like Ms. Alvare who want to protect us from ourselves. No thanks.

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Correction: An earlier version of this post indicated that Helen Alvare’s piece came “out of a Princeton University Institute”. It should have read “out of an independent research center in Princeton, New Jersey”.

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