In defense of sex

The Religious Right and the politicians who claim to represent it are attacking birth control--and women's sexuality in the process. Elizabeth Schulte explains.

Demonstrating against the right wing's attack on Planned ParenthoodDemonstrating against the right wing's attack on Planned Parenthood

BREAK OUT the chastity belts.

We all thought that a woman's right to abortion was the issue that drove the Religious Right around the bend. But the Pandora's box has been opened wide--and now, the fanatics are going after contraception.

Though the Catholic Church and the right-wing politicians who pander to Christian conservatives claim it's about "religious freedom," a new barrage of anti-contraception legislation is making their real intentions clear--to impose their belief that sex is for procreation, and nothing else.

The list of legislative atrocities is long and infuriating: An amendment to a federal highway funding bill proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri that would allow religious groups or any employer with "moral" objections to opt out of covering contraception in employee health plans. An Arizona bill that would require women trying to get insurance reimbursement for birth control drugs to prove that they were using the drug for a reason other than preventing pregnancy. Legislation in Utah requiring long-discredited abstinence-only-until-marriage instruction to replace sex education in schools.

And no list of the sick, anti-woman outrages of the right wing would be complete without Rush Limbaugh, who called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" after she posted on YouTube the testimony she was barred from giving before a congressional panel, in which she explained why insurance companies should cover the cost of birth control.

Here's what America's leading radio parasite had to say:

What does it say about the college co-ed Sandra Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex, what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She's having so much sex she can't afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex. What does that make us? We're the pimps.

Fluke, of course, was simply stating the facts--that for many women, legal access to birth control is an illusion because they can't afford it. That's why we need free and accessible contraception.

It should also be of no surprise that at the same time women are deciding they don't want to have children because of the economic recession, they're also finding it harder to pay for contraception.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, "[N]early half of women surveyed want to delay pregnancy or limit the number of children they have...But for many, economic hardship means having to skimp on their contraceptive use, for example, by stretching their monthly supply of pills or shifting to a less expensive method--or not using birth control at all--in order to save money."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

LIMBAUGH'S TREATMENT of Fluke rightly sparked outrage among women and men--and it showed how fundamentally anti-woman the right-wingers truly are.

Obviously, Rush Limbaugh doesn't represent the mainstream of political thinking in the U.S., but the Republican presidential frontrunners didn't have any real criticism of Limbaugh's spew. Rick Santorum wrote off Limbaugh, telling CNN, "He's being absurd, but that's--you know, an entertainer can be absurd." When Mitt Romney was asked what he thought, he said, "It's not the language I would have used."

Limbaugh was reflecting the opinions of the living-under-a-rock part of the U.S. population, but the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination don't want to alienate them--even if that means giving the disgusting sexism a pass.

But the majority of the public rejects such arguments, even when they're couched in terms of freedom of religion, like the "debate" earlier this year about contraception and insurance.

More than six in 10 respondents to a Bloomberg poll--including almost 70 percent of women--said they saw the debate over employer-provided contraceptive coverage as a matter of women's health and not religious freedom. That's because birth control and preventing unwanted pregnancies aren't religious questions--they are about women's health.

The simple fact is that women have sex, and women use birth control--in very large numbers. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 99 percent of U.S. women who have had sex with men have used some form of birth control in their lifetimes.

As for the talk about "religious freedom," what do the Catholic Church's opinions about reproduction have to do with the right to accessible and affordable contraception?

And where does the long staff of "religious freedom" end? Religious leaders put a little pressure on the Obama administration last month and won exemptions for church-affiliated employers, including schools, colleges and charities, from covering birth control in employee health care plans. In several states, pharmacists and health care providers who don't want to dispense birth control pills can refuse to do so on basis of local "conscience laws" that "protect" their religious beliefs.

In other words, religious freedom can exempt a health care professional from providing patients the drugs or treatments they need, or an employer from adhering to laws that bar discrimination against women.

There's another way of looking at it: Everyone gets to make decisions about women's reproductive lives--except women.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THROUGHOUT HISTORY, women have found ways to limit the number of children they had. In conditions of illegality, these methods weren't always effective or safe. Thousands of women in the U.S.--one of the last countries to make birth control legal--suffered the consequences.

For its part, it took until 1951 for the Catholic Church to sanction even the "rhythm method" as birth control. Up until then, the only contraception option okayed by the church was abstinence.

In 1957, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved the drug Enovid "for the treatment of severe menstrual disorders." The drug also carried the warning that it prevented ovulation, and within two years, over half a million women had taken it.

The FDA approved the birth control pill in 1960, and by 1963, an estimated 2.3 million women were taking it--despite the fact the eight states still prohibited it, and a couple even banned dissemination of information about it.

By 1965, more than 6.5 million women in the U.S. used the pill, and in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court struck down a state law prohibiting birth control as a violation of a couple's right to privacy.

Women still had to prove they were married in order to obtain a prescription for the pill, and this form of contraception was hard to obtain even up to 1967. Information about the safety of contraception was only made available to women as a result of protest. In 1970, demonstrations against an all-male congressional panel on the pill forced manufacturers to provide information, previously kept from women, about dangerous side effects.

Access to reliable contraception made a huge difference in women's everyday lives, making it possible for them to decide whether they had children, went to school or to work--and whether they could play a greater role in society outside the confines of family life.

"When I got married, I was still in college, and I wanted to be certain that I finished," a 23-year-old Indiana teacher told Time magazine in 1967. "With the pill, I know I can keep earning money, and not worry about an accident that would ruin everything."

For many women's liberation activists in the late 1960s and '70s, contraception was linked with other demands for greater reproductive rights, such as the right to abortion and an end to the sterilization abuse against poor and Black and Latino women. For many poor and working-class women, reproductive justice meant not only standing up for the right not to have children, but the right to have children.

No matter how much it might upset Rush Limbaugh, birth control makes it possible for women to be sexual human beings--to enjoy sex and not have to worry about getting pregnant.

The singer Loretta Lynn, who had six children, four before the age of 19, recorded a song titled "The Pill" in 1975 with these lyrics:

But all I've seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor bill
I'm tearing down your brooder house 'cause now I've got the pill...

I'm tired of all your crowing how you and your hens play
While holding a couple in my arms, another's on the way
This chicken's done tore up her nest, and I'm ready to make a deal
And you can't afford to turn it down, 'cause you know I've got the pill

This incubator is overused because you've kept it filled
The feeling good comes easy now since I've got the pill

The song, which was banned from several radio stations at the time, expressed not only relief at not having to be a human incubator, but also the sexual freedom that access to birth control meant to many women--of women experiencing newfound freedom in expressing their sexuality.

Conservatives want to stigmatize women and stigmatize sex, but this contradicts the way real people think and live. A woman can't be liberated unless she has the ability to control what happens to her own body--and yes, that includes the right to have sex, and the right to birth control.