I have been having sex since I was 17 years old. That’s a sex life that spans more than 28 years. I am not alone. Of my 12 closest female friends and my two sisters, none of us is still a virgin. Several of them have the children to prove it. Between the dozen women that I consider close, we have used every form of birth control available in the US. Not just the pill and condoms, but IUDs, tubal ligation, cervical caps, diaphragms, and (the ever popular, but always a bad idea) withdrawal.
Last week, the U.S. Senate launched an assault on me, my sisters, and my friends. They began a discussion about defunding Planned Parenthood. According to Reuters, on July 28, “Senate Republicans are planning a vote in coming days on legislation to cut $500 million in annual federal funding for Planned Parenthood…
A frequent target of conservatives, Planned Parenthood has come under increasing scrutiny recently due to secretly recorded videos about its role in supplying aborted fetal tissue for medical research.” A vote could be held as early as Monday, August 3rd. Once again, because of the hysteria surrounding abortion in this country, birth control, and healthcare are in the line of fire.
How is it possible that the U.S. Senate doesn’t know that Planned Parenthood was founded to prevent women from dying from self-induced, illegal, and unsafe abortions? Do they not understand that access to birth control and sex education is mandatory if the abortion rate in the country is going to continue to decline?
Fifteen years ago, while working as a tele-fundraiser, I became the designated trainer on several campaigns. Planned Parenthood and NARAL were two of them. I always opened the twenty-minute training with two questions: do you know what Roe vs. Wade is and did you know that women in the United States couldn’t buy birth control in the 1950s?
It seems that this is a question that should now be asked of the entire country, or at least the United States Congress. Congress, like the earnest college students I used to coach, is clearly confused about history.
“Wasn’t Roe v. Wade some court case?” the naïve ones ask. “What about abstinence? Can’t women just do that?” say those who favor the “keep your legs crossed” method of birth control. (Which is, in fact, 100 percent effective, when used properly. So pretty much never.)
But the key question is—why are birth control and abortion invariably linked? Discussed simultaneously like, oh, Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives. One breath, one sentence, two very different ideas and actions, but always linked.
So, a short history lesson.
Birth control, the ability for a woman to control whether or not she’s going to become pregnant during sex, has been around since Cleopatra—who has been rumored to use lemon halves like a diaphragm. Abortion, the termination of a pregnancy, has been around just as long. Plato, in “Theaetetus,” makes reference to the ability of a midwife to induce a miscarriage.
Fast-forward approximately 2,285 years. Margaret Sanger, the founder of the birth control movement in the United States, wrote, in 1914, that unsafe abortions were a reason for women to have access to birth control. At the time there was a federal law in place, the Comstock Law enacted in 1879, which prohibited information about and distribution of birth control—because it was obscene.
This law was not struck down by the Supreme Court until 1965.
Back to Margaret Sanger. She was a nurse who opened up a clinic in New York in 1916 in order to provide women with accurate information about, and access to, birth control. She did this because, as a nurse on the lower east side of Manhattan, she’d seen the results of self-induced abortions. And she wanted women to have a choice. She – along with her sister and several others- was arrested and the clinic closed. Nothing new, they’d been arrested two years earlier for simply printing a newsletter about birth control.
However, she kept fighting. (Whatever you can say about her horribly misguided views on race, she wasn’t a quitter when it came to women’s lives.) A court decision in 1918 allowed her to open a clinic in 1923, which would distribute birth control for therapeutic purposes only. That is, if getting pregnant might kill you, according to an actual physician, then you could have condoms or a diaphragm. It probably didn’t hurt that in 1920 the nineteenth amendment passed and women were given the right to vote. Women now had a political voice.
A voice that has been ignored during the increasingly insane recent debates in Congress and state legislatures across the country.
Comstock obscenity laws were still in place in 1923, so most women were denied basic information about controlling their own fertility. And, because of that, self-induced and “back alley” abortions continued. Sanger had documented the risks associated with self-induced abortions and unwanted pregnancies in a report to Congress in 1916. Yet, the problem- meaning the death of women- persisted. Illness, poverty, the inability to care for existing children, much less one more, were the sort of problems most women still faced. By 1923, The American Birth Control League ( later Planned Parenthood of America) had been around for two years and the clinic in New York was open.
In 2012, Congress spent weeks hearing testimony from predominantly male groups about the right of employers, primarily religious institutions, to deny birth control and abortion coverage to employees based on moral grounds. The proposed amendment was tabled, in the Senate, by a narrow vote, 51-48. Many of the 48, like Senator Pat Toomey (PA), are staunchly anti-choice. They speak of morality and life from, apparently, a special bubble in which moral people do not have any need to control their own reproduction.
Enter the Supreme Court in 2014 (the court that once ruled abortion was constitutionally protected under privacy and that the Comstock laws were unconstitutional) and the bizarre Hobby Lobby Stores, LLC decision that struck down the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
Now, today, an inflammatory and factually incorrect video about the legal sale of fetal tissue is being used as a reason to stop access to birth control.
Birth control and abortion; still linked, still waved as a red flag in the face of voters. Morality, anti-choice politicians state, trumps history and the laws enacted to protect women’s health.
In the 1950s there were, under Comstock, laws on the books in 30 states prohibiting or restricting the sale of or advertising about birth control. In practical terms, according to my grandmother, this meant that only the men—my grandfather, in her case—could buy condoms. On May 11, 1960 the FDA approved the sale of the first birth control pill. In 1964 there were still eight states that had Comstock Laws on the books.
It wasn’t until 1965 that the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck these laws down as being unconstitutional. It was not until 1972 that the same Court ruled that a state could not stand in the way of the distribution of birth control to a single, unmarried, person.
More than 50 years after Margaret Sanger first took up the fight, all women finally had the legal right to know about and receive birth control. Fifty years of women having sex, getting pregnant, and facing the choice at that point—if the pregnancy was unwanted or caused financial or health concerns—of having an abortion. Today, a planned Senate vote threatens healthy sexual freedom as we enjoy it, and turns the clock back to 1915.
Recently, I was at Starbucks. Two kids stood in line and made out. His hand was on her butt, her tongue was in his mouth. It took them two or three minutes to separate, beam their silver braces smiles at the barista, and order frozen, blended beverages. I know that sex is in their near future.
But what about condoms? What about pregnancy? Just because the Supreme Court says they can know about birth control, does that mean their parents do? Or their schools? And if she does get pregnant, like 57 out of every 1000 girls aged 15-19 did in 2010 (the latest statistics available from the CDC), will she have access to a safe, legal abortion?
I believe in choice. I believe that people should have knowledge of and access to birth control so that they can choose when, or if, to get pregnant. I also believe in access to safe, legal abortions, because death and infertility should not be the consequence of ignorance about, or lack of access to, birth control.
The United States Senate seems to think that I, and multitudes of other voting women might be, well, wrong. People have sex. Half of those people are women. Those people can get pregnant when they have sex. I, my sisters, and my friends are among those people. We like having sex and aren’t afraid to say it out loud.
It’s summer. A season that should be spent enjoying sex, hanging out, maybe even talking about women like Margaret Sanger who paved the way for our safe frolicking.
A time to meet female friends to share a drink and a victory—celebrate a project finished, a child doing well in sports, a degree completed, a new relationship. Instead, we find ourselves fighting a government that seems hell-bent on turning back the clock.
We won the right to vote. We won the right to have access (however limited at the time) to birth control the same decade.
Reproductive freedom. Don’t let it become history.