A preventive on choice
Providing free birth control is a matter of social equality
A recent study at Washington University in St. Louis found that free birth control leads to a dramatic reduction in the frequency of teen pregnancies and abortions. One might think, upon first looking at the headlines, that this is common sense. But upon further examination into the details of this study, it becomes clear that this study is not just about the correlation between using birth control and the occurrence of unwanted pregnancies; it is about the benefit of health insurance coverage for women who are less advantaged, and its positive impact on their reproductive safety and freedom.
The study involved many low-income women or women who lacked health insurance. They were presented with various different contraceptive options, all cost-free. Because money was not a factor, most women chose IUDs or implants — methods that usually have a high up-front cost, but also tend to be more effective because they do not have as much potential for human error, like the pill does. As a consequence, the rates of teen pregnancy and abortion in the study group were dramatically lower than the rates in the general population of the country.
This study is extremely relevant to the current political atmosphere. President Obama’s health insurance reform would require insurance companies to completely cover the cost of birth control for most women who have workplace insurance plans. The controversy is that religiously affiliated organizations — with the exception of churches — would not have the option to refuse birth control coverage to their employees based on their beliefs. The argument is that requiring such organizations to provide free birth control would violate their religious freedom.
But we have to remember that this issue is about women’s freedom. To deny women their options of family planning is to deny them equality to their male counterparts. Men have a kind of sexual freedom that results from biology but has developed into a social inequality. Only women bear the burden of possibly carrying a child, and even though the man may have a moral and legal obligation to support a child should a pregnancy occur, women have taken the brunt of public criticism for wanting the medical means to prevent pregnancies, to be the sole proprietors of their own bodies, to choose whether or not they want to be mothers in the first place.
Some may argue that no issue exists because there is no legal restriction on women’s access to birth control, but this study has demonstrated that there is a clear issue of class disparity when it comes to reproductive freedom. Statistics show that affluent women are far less likely to have an unplanned pregnancy than low-income women. Birth control is expensive without insurance, and even some insurance plans charge extremely high co-pays. So even though all women can theoretically have access to birth control, some face significantly more obstacles than others.
Let us look at this issue as a matter of erasing gender and class inequalities. Men and women of all incomes are entitled to the same degree of sexual freedom. And that is contingent upon the preservation of individual choice — the choice of whether one wants to be a parent of five children, or of only one child, or not to be a parent at all. For those who think this is an issue of religious freedom, it is still about choice — the choice of whether or not to use birth control based on your beliefs. But restricting others’ choices by insisting that they must mirror your own is oppressive. Maintaining a right to personal worship practices and maintaining others’ right to make their own reproductive decisions are not mutually exclusive polices.
Let us also think about the bipartisan benefits of this policy of free birth control. The study clearly indicates that should nationwide coverage of birth control be implemented, there would be far fewer abortions. This is an outcome that I think everyone would agree is good.
Pro-lifers would have obvious reasons to be happy at decreased rates of abortion, and those who are pro-choice would be glad that the reduction resulted from women having more options concerning their reproductive health. If we recognize the benefits of this healthcare initiative for all the parties in this situation, we can move in the right direction — toward freedom, equality and social justice.
Katherine Ripley is an opinion editor for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.