Is Birth Control Coverage a Feminist Cause?
I have wondered for a while about the birth control debate. I have heard many, many of my friends say that not covering birth control is a slight against women, a sexist relic, a male presumption, etc. etc. But I couldn’t figure out why.
It seemed perfectly reasonable to me that if you wanted something, you should pay for it. I mean, someone has to pay for it. Why shouldn’t the person using it pay for it, instead of everyone having to? Besides which, I couldn’t figure out why this was a female thing. I never heard of healthcare covering contraceptives for males, and that seems to be as equivalent as you can get.
And let’s not get into the question of how discrimination against females and discrimination against the need for birth control are still equivalent, when the possession of a body capable of bearing children no longer correlates directly to one’s male or female status. Moving on – I am excited to announce that I have finally heard the argument.
The argument is that, by insisting that birth control is not a normal health concern, we are assuming that the male body is the baseline for health coverage – that is, male concerns are the default, while female concerns are extras added on.
I was actually very impressed by this argument; it’s remarkably subtle, and it points to the ways in which unspoken assumptions can actually influence thought. Since I spend a lot of my time trying to convince people that one’s beliefs do, in fact, influence one’s action, I was gratified to see this example. There’s just one small problem.
You see, birth control really is an add-on, even to a female body. That’s why we have to go out and get it in the first place; it doesn’t occur naturally.* So apparently, even if the default body is female, we could still consider this ‘extra’. That means we’re working with the wrong default. The baseline isn’t a male – it’s a female who wants children.
Shock and horror! A female who wants children?! This is a still more sexist assumption; things are getting worse, not better!
But is it really such a far-off assumption that women generally want to have children? Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene tells us that everything we do in life is to forward the goal of procreation. Surely, if evolution put nothing else in us, it would have put in us a desire to reproduce, or the process wouldn’t have gotten very far. Surely, if procreation is the purpose of life, there should be nothing more natural than a woman who wants to have children?
Birth control is not natural. Birth is natural, while generally speaking, control of any type is almost never natural; it involves imposing force to suppress some natural things and allow others. And with birth control, we are in fact suppressing (what used to be, at least) the most uniquely feminine power in all the world: the built-in ability to shelter and nurture new life. The honor due fertility is an idea going way back. The idea that this is a bad thing that must be suppressed is a distinctly modern and first-world human invention.
In sum, yes, paying for birth control does deny any innate right to have children at times which are convenient. (I mean, it makes sense that birth isn’t the sort of thing that can be whistled for, just like death can’t be… well, that’s another discussion.) Instead, this convenience is treated as a privilege – one you have to earn/pay for. But you know what? We are independent and capable individuals who can support our needs and desires without having to be helped along by society. So that’s okay.
And by the way, we are also rational and responsible adults who know better than to have sex when we have no money to pay for contraceptives or food or the adoption process, and when we have no husband committed to help us with these needs. We know that would not be in anyone’s best interests, and we don’t let our emotions get in the way of our judgement and then get hysterical when people question us.
Now, I’m not going to go full-blown Catholic here, mainly because I’m Protestant. I’m not claiming that birth control or family planning is wrong or shouldn’t be done. Birth control fills a big need and makes many, many women’s lives easier. I know that becoming pregnant can be extremely uncomfortable, time- and energy-consuming, and inconvenient.
But maybe we should consider that it isn’t all about us. Maybe our convenience doesn’t demand everyone’s attention and help. Maybe, although we have a right to pursue happiness, we don’t have a right to demand that everyone else pursue it and bring it back for us. And maybe, if we want more respect, we should go out and quietly earn what we want instead of nagging society into buying things for us. Because that isn’t stereotypical at all.
*For those who would argue that some women are too poor to feed their children or keep them alive – first of all, there are resources available. Second of all, this is what natural birth control actually is – if you drop below a certain body fat percentage, or rise above a high enough stress level, you will stop menstruating, specifically because you wouldn’t be able to carry a child to term. That part is already taken care of.