In a recent policy update, it has been announced that Donald Trump plans to roll birth control being covered by health insurance, something mandated by his pet hate, Obamacare. Predictably, there has been a somewhat polarising reaction to this news- some (mainly on the left) believe that it is a healthcare right as much as other medication, whilst others (mainly on the right) believe that birth control is necessary only to the individual, as sex is an activity partaken through individual choice.
The new legislation will allow employers to opt out if it affects their religious beliefs, or ‘moral convictions.’ This is of course a play to grab the evangelical and conservative vote, something which hasn’t gotten hugely behind Trump. His mish-mash of policies during the election cycle confused many, and he is not a man who has hugely shown his religion, in contrast with pious previous Presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. Generally, the evangelical Christian vote went to his closest rival, Senator Ted Cruz, or even Senator Marco Rubio. With the 2018 elections in play, Trump is finally realising that he must reach the broad church of the Republican Party, and not just his newest converts.
Religious liberty is a fundamental part of Republican policy, as is religion itself, which is interesting considering Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli ‘the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.’ In 1956, the phrase ‘In God We Trust’ was controversially added to the Pledge of Allegiance and also made the official motto of the United States. Of course, whilst there are various religions in the US (it is a melting pot; after all), it is mainly Christianity that we will be looking at. Whilst Anglicanism is the official religion of the UK, there are a huge variety of denominations- from the more liberal Presbyterian Church to the more conservative Church of the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon). Birth control, like acceptance of gay marriage and abortion, varies from denomination to denomination. Most notably, it is the Catholic Church that one often thinks of when imagining opposition to artificial birth control, though it is worth pointing out that American Catholics are actually more liberal as compared to the central church.
The history of birth control in the US is actually a fascinating one. In 1873, the government passed the Comstock Laws which banned things of vice, including contraceptives amongst other sexual things such as erotica. Women would find their ways around it, of course- they have been creative about it for years, and there are ‘natural’ methods such as the rhythm method, however, it was officially outlawed and only rich women would have been able to get their hands on them with any ease. For years, women kept their contraceptive habits under wraps, but were often unsuccessful- hence why so many poor women had large families.
In 1916, Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the US, before going onto found the American Birth Control League (bankrolled by John D. Rockefeller Jr), which would eventually branch out into the controversial Planned Parenthood. For years, she fought for birth control, and is still controversial both for that and her views on eugenics. Years later, in 1965, the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut allowed married people to obtain birth control, and seven years down the line, Eisenstadt v. Baird extended that courtesy to unmarried couples. In terms of the strongest reproductive taboo- abortion, Roe v Wade was passed in 1973.
Trump’s new policy stipulates that employers may withhold birth control under either ‘religious beliefs’ or ‘moral convictions.’ So what does this mean?
In 2016, Zubik v. Burwell was brought before the Supreme Court, but was sent back down. This was brought about by several religious groups- including a Roman Catholic order- who believed that they should be exempt from giving birth control to female employees. Churches were already exempt from it, but women could still technically get it from insurers in the cases of other religious groups. Two years previously, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby was brought before SCOTUS. The court ruled in favour of the business over the government, stating that closely held companies did not have to violate their religious liberties when opening or running the business. In this particular case, the families who owned Hobby Lobby were deeply religious and believed that life begins at conception, thus they were against contraception and providing it to employees.
Religious convictions tend to be a huge reason as to why there is opposition to birth control- so it’s no surprise it was included. So what does it mean when employers may use moral convictions?
Morality is often interlinked with religion in cases such as these. For Catholics, and other religious groups who oppose birth control, it is a question of morality- to them; it is immoral to prevent something that is so natural. In the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the families believed that the contraceptives were ‘life-limiting’ drugs, therefore against their religious beliefs. In the views of people such as these, sexual intercourse is for married couples for the purposes of procreation- look at history, and how sex was seen as sinful and was treated as such. Morality and religion are intrinsically linked.
Is there an atheist version of morality here? Some may argue along religion lines- it prevents the destiny of a potential person, or is a cynical form of population control. Some may argue it’s a form of eugenics or race control- Ben Carson stated that PP tends to place its clinics in black neighbourhood as a form of control, though Dr. Carson is deeply religious so this is less of a secular argument. A fear of depopulation comes here- in Western countries, where birth control is used more liberally, the birth rate is a lot less (in Germany, for example, the birth rate is 1.50 whereas in Mali it is 6.14). Morality also may come from the fear of birth control encouraging a free sexual appetite, sex outside of marriage, or sex for non-reproductive purposes.
We’ve heard the argument against birth control, so what are the reasons for?
Firstly, many women take contraceptives for medical reasons. This is not true for things such as the IUD, which tend to be for anti-pregnancy only, but the pill is very versatile. As a rule, many women take it for painful periods- which tend to occur in younger years, and are believed to be help by childbirth. Endometriosis, a condition where the lining of the womb grows in other parts of the body, is another such reason- and endometriosis is not a pleasant condition.
In 2012, the UN, in the form of the WHO (no, not the band), declared contraceptives a human right. Of course, the US has a less than…friendly relationship with the UN, despite its base being parked in their house (don’t bother with the tour), but the UN is still a hugely influential body like no other. You can ignore the UN, but not its policies. It may not be a popular organisation, and they are often (rightly) seen as toothless do-gooders who do not care about the countries it has, but declaring something a ‘human right’ is no small feat.
Population control is another aspect, and easily the most controversial. Whether you agree or not with population control measures, the world’s birth rate means that population is outstripping the resources which the Earth provides. Surely birth control prevents too many people? Well, that’s fact- if a person is not conceived; they are not there, therefore not contributing to the population. In African countries, especially the poorest ones, birth control is encouraged. There are of course varied reasons- contraception increases the education of women as they are able to go to school, it is a measure of preventing child poverty etc, but fundamentally, whatever the reason, birth control prevents birth.
Then there is the bodily autonomy issue. Abortion is hugely controversial, and proponents usually agree that it should be allowed so that women can control their body. Of course, contraceptives are used by both men and women, but women are the ones who get pregnant. Trump is not preventing women from accessing the pill- of course he isn’t, that would never happen, but certain employees will not be able to access it. Women can’t just jump up and move jobs to gain better health insurance- why should they, they may be happy in their jobs. They may be able to get it from other places, but if they don’t- birth control is definitely not cheap. With insurance, women will pay roughly $5-$15 a month for contraceptives but without it, it can cost between $20 and $50 a month. Furthermore, they must pay to go to a doctor in order to get a prescription- an added expense. For those on higher incomes, that is nothing, but for those on minimum wage- it’s simply not affordable. Women don’t go into sex expecting pregnancy, unless they are trying. Even those who go in unprotected may still be shocked when they sit on the toilet, the plus sign glaring up at them.
Increased use of birth control also lowers the rate of abortion, because, obviously conception isn’t having it. Is that not a good thing? Whether you agree with the ready use of abortion or not, nobody particularly wants it to happen unless absolutely necessary. It’s not an experience you imagine that one goes into feeling happy, or leaves feeling that way- they may feel relief, but experiences of guilt, hurt and confusion may also apply.
One of the best ways to look at one extreme is to look to Rick Santorum, former US Senator and Congressman of Pennsylvania. Santorum is an extremely Catholic man- look at his large group of children and extremely conservative views. He believes that nowhere in the Constitution is there a ‘right to privacy’ and that contraceptives encourage couples to do things sexually that are not ‘how things are supposed to be’ (basically, having intercourse for non-reproductive reason). One supposes the other extreme would everybody being forced to have birth control, or at least own it, but I cannot imagine any politician coming out in favour of such an idea.
It’s hard to say how or when this issue will be solved. As long as there are religious gaps and partisan politics, there will never be much agreement. Religious liberty is a fundamental part of the more pious GOP and with the party in control of all of the main political branches, governorship and Supreme Court (in terms of ideology) for at least another year; it looks as though this will go ahead. Of course, that is not to say this will clear the Senate- Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski will probably vote against it, as will the Democrats, however, there is still a slight swing in the Republican majority, and Pence will vote in favour of the motion in the event of a tie-break.
It’ll be a close one, whatever happens.