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Is Contraception (necessarily) Good for Women?

As I was on the NYTimes reading about the new data on Plan B (in brief, use is way up), I came across this comment:

Curly: The President should make the IUD free to females.

The President should mandate that all girls who reach puberty should be given an IUD (no cost to them) who are receiving an unearned entitlement. This requirement should also be for the boys starting at puberty when a method is developed for them.

Also all women in the service should be required to have the IUD until a service woman wants to have a child and obtains the permission to do so. This would greatly reduce the loss to the military caused by UNPLANNED pregnancies. But it would also allow these women to have a family.

Really? Every pubescent girl should be given an invasive form of contraception? Every women serving our country too until she is given permission to do otherwise? This is what feminist women fought for?

Now, Curly’s position is an extreme one, but I think his (or her) comments reflect an attitude that a lot of people have in a less extreme form, that is, a view that pregnancy (or its avoidance) is a woman’s responsibility and women have no excuse to not be using contraception.

In the midst of the battle between the Catholic bishops and the Obama administration over providing free coverage for contraception and sterilization, I have heard a lot about religious liberty and very little challenging the idea that more widely available contraception is actually good for women. It seems to be obvious that women will clearly benefit from the ACA mandate. The language used to support the mandate also indicates that it gives women more control, as Obama made clear upon the initial passing of the mandate:

“Let me tell you something, Virginia,” Obama said, “I don’t think your boss should control the care you get. I don’t think insurance companies should control the care you get. I definitely don’t think politicians on Capitol Hill should control the care you get. We’ve seen some of their attitudes, we’ve read about those.

“I think there is one person who gets to make decisions about your health care, that’s you,” said Obama.

Why is contraception at the center of the argument about women’s well-being and freedom? We got the answer from the US Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey back in 1994 when the Court argued that Roe v. Wade could not be overturned because abortion was necessary if contraception failed:

The Roe rule’s limitation on state power could not be repudiated without serious inequity to people who, for two decades of economic and social developments, have organized intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives. The Constitution serves human values, and while the effect of reliance on Roe cannot be exactly measured, neither can the certain costs of overruling Roe for people who have ordered their thinking and living around that case be dismissed.

In the Casey quote, we see that both abortion and contraception are justified for the same reason: The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives. Ah!

Participation (a principle of Catholic social teaching, mind you) is not facilitated by pro-family policies that make it possible for women to be active both as moms and as employees, but rather on policies that make it very possible and very reasonable to not have children, and in doing so implicitly encourage women not to have children if they are going to have sex.

This attitude of seeing sex and procreation as distinct is what is sometimes referred to as the contraceptive mentality. This mentality obviously says that there is a right to not have children if one chooses, but it also means that sexually active women will be seen as having the responsibility to not have children as well if they want to participate in society as something other than a mother.

The contraceptive mentality is so pervasive in our country that is is seen as completely unreasonable to oppose contraception. The new data on the use of artificial contraception shows that 98.6% of sexually active Catholic women had used contraception at some point (which is often reported with a sneer at the hypocrisy of Catholics, though there is some question about the veracity of the data), but this data reveals less about hypocrisy to me (though that is obviously a factor) and more about a society which sees contraception as a given. We live in a world which requires two wage earners to support a middle class lifestyle, which sees children largely as a commodity, and which does not provide social support for women to integrate being mothers and wives with being participants in the work force. It is no wonder so many Catholics are using contraception!

Last week, Meg Clark wrote a post on pro-life feminism where she noted that New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo’s 10 point plan called the “Women’s Equity Act” undermines itself by making abortion rights the first point. Meg quotes Sidney Callahan’s classic essay “Abortion and the Sexual Agenda: The Case for Prolife Feminism”:

For that matter, why should the state provide a system of day care or child support, or require workplaces to accommodate women’s maternity and the needs of child rearing? Permissive abortion, granted in the name of women’s privacy and reproductive freedom, ratifies the view that pregnancies and children are a woman’s private individual responsibility. More and more frequently, we hear some version of this old rationalization: if she refuses to get rid of it, it’s her problem. A child becomes a product of the individual woman’s freely chosen investment, a form of private property resulting from her own cost-benefit calculation. The larger community is relieved of moral responsibility.

In the comments, I asked whether this same argument could be made for widespread and free contraception. Why should a state or employer provide day care, child care, comprehensive pre-natal and post-natal health care, or other more pro-family policies when pregnancy is a private choice, and when women have no other excuse besides their own decision to have a child? By holding up free contraception, Plan B, and sterilization, society is effectively washing its hands of the need to provide more equity for women who are mothers in the work force.

Let’s be clear: I am not suggesting here that contraception is inherently evil or sinful. But I would like to have a conversation on whether widespread use of contraception in our society, and the way in which women are encouraged to use contraception if they want to be “responsible” has actually been good for women. Has it made women more free to achieve integral flourishing? Or, have women thrown in the towel too early and given up too much for the sake of society treating us with equity?



  1. Beth, What perhaps most horrifies me about the comment about military women and “unplanned pregnancies” is reading that comment within the context of the high rate of unreported sexual assault in the military – it sounds to me as if it is akin to saying – implant IUDs and make it easier to assault female servicewomen…..

    (ok, now i have to go reread your post because honestly, I couldn’t get beyond that comment – that is how angry it makes me)

    • Meg,
      Right on! There are so many things wrong with Curly’s statement that it is difficult to know where to begin. It could almost be used to caricature the pro-contraception perspective on things. I cite him (or her) only to get the conversation started, not because I want to say that Curly is representative of the pro-contraception (or pro-mandate) side of things which would make it seem that I was setting up a straw man (or woman:)). I say that we both not take him (or her) too seriously.

  2. Beth – Thanks for this. I’ve written about this a couple times too, because I have similar questions. I really worry that the way contraception gets discussed perpetuates a view that women, and worse, one sole woman, alone – is responsible for the pregnancy/abortion/baby she has. And – that contraception is seen as this virtually magic fix – use it and have absolutely no problems/babies at all. Use contraception, and none of the rest of us have to worry about funding maternity care, leave, or child care – because those things are solely about an individual’s choice.

    I read a Dear Abbey letter a while ago, in which a young teenage pregnant mother was upset that her boyfriend wasn’t standing with her in her pregnancy, which she was even though she had been using contraception (and I believe even two forms).

    Dear Abbey’s advice was to go back to the doctor and find a more reliable form of contraception. I was thinking, “No!” Regardless of where we stand in relation to whether artificial contraception use is sinful or not, contraception fails sometimes. According to Guttmacher, 48% of unplanned pregnancies involve use of contraceptives. And because it fails that’s all the more reason that we ought to be worried about supporting maternity leave, maternity care and child care. And so on. But treating women as more than robots who work and have no family life ought to be paramount in the concerns here too.

  3. Beth, Meg, Jana– Great post, great comments… and this is something we are developing very strongly, too. I had a similar reaction to Meg’s when reading that comment: I was like, license for assault.
    So let me play devil’s advocate here: the alternative (to Casey) you all rightly point to is better support for women, and for childbearing and childcare. But this would place enormous burdens both on women (carrying a pregnancy to term, at the very least) and on society (we have woefully inadequate child care now, and that’s with widespread conctraception and a million abortions). The Obama/Casey track assumes that it is less burdensome to society AND to women to have universally-available contraception, Plan B, and Plan C (surgical abortion). Cuomo’s plans, for example, suggest that women largely want this regime available, and that in some cases view it as “necessary” for participation in the labor force.
    Here’s the devilish part: it’s right to think that the Casey regime of contraception/abortion has much to do with our economic system – demanding two-wage-earner families, offering meagre family leave, spotty medical coverage, and expensive child care. But doesn’t it also have an awful lot to do with our sexual system? This is Casey on our having “organized intimate relationships” around a system that presumes abortion is available if contraception fails – which is to say, it presumes that sex be understood as non-procreative (male!). Wouldn’t both things have to be taken on at the same time? And (again, devil’s advocate) if we find it politically impossible to take on the sex/chastity conversation, then is the Obama/Casey contraception regime the lesser evil alternative??

    • David and Nancy,
      Now we are having a good conversation!

      The first thing that I would say in response to Nancy’s comment about other reasons for using the pill (eg endometriosis) is that (1) this is not the primary reason women take the Pill though if taken for a legitimate therapeutic purpose is understandable (though I seriously doubt the HHS mandate is concerned primarily with women with endometriosis), but (2) I have a sneaking suspicion that the Pill is over-prescribed for these conditions anyways. While the Pill is the first go-to for endometriosis, as I understand it, it doesn’t treat the condition just the symptoms, particularly pain. I know there are alternative therapies (excision for example). Now, I am beyond my area of expertise here, but I have several friends in the healthcare field, all committed to NFP which doesn’t make them the most reliable sources, but who are constantly bemoaning the fact that doctors diagnose a woman with some sort of reproductive problem and just prescribe the Pill and move on without a discussion of alternatives. I don’t know. I don’t necessarily want to talk about something I don’t know, but it makes me wonder (in a conspiracy theory sort of way).

      The real issue though that you both raise about economic and social (ie sexual) forces is legitimate. There are a number of factors I see. First, the “contraceptive mentality” which sees sex and procreation as distinct is pervasive. This accompanied by sexual license, the postponing of monogamous, exclusive, and permanent sexual relationships, and the hook-up culture, none of which appear to be going away soon, reveal a much deeper problem than just whether contraception is “good” or not. It isn’t necessarily clear to me that contraception makes this situation better. First, assuming we are primarily talking about the Pill, we still have the issue of STDs. Second, widespread availability and use of contraception has just got to feed a culture of sexual license. My husband was telling me about a Bill Simmons interview where they were talking about football head injuries. One of Simmons’ guests argued that the way to minimize (though not eliminate) head injuries was to get rid of the helmets. The helmets make possible for seriously damaging tackling to become widespread. Could not it be the same with contraception?

      There are also economic forces. Most women feel like they need to work to support their family. Besides that, women want to work. After all, they are educated and capable, and in many cases, better at their jobs than their male counterparts. Why wouldn’t they want to work? Most women also want to have a family, and there are social pressures about how they should behave in that role too. This, accompanied by the enormous cost of raising kids in the middle-class way makes it very unreasonable to have several to a lot of kids in many situations. This makes contemporary birth control options look not only reasonable, but pretty darn good in terms of what women want.

      So David’s question. Is the Obama/Casey regime (I like that you use this word) a lesser evil? Maybe, though I am not ready to say so yet. But even if I did, I would want to admit that it was an evil and this is precisely what is not being said in the public discourse. We are talking as if it is a foregone conclusion that contraception is good for women–physically, socially, economically. I worry (and forgive the strong language) that women are suffering from a sort of Stockholm Syndrome. We end up loving and justifying our oppressors, these rather amorphous social and economic forces, to our own peril. And then I look at Curly’s comment (which again, I don’t want to take too seriously) and I wonder where all this is going to lead.

  4. PS You three would make for a dynamite teamed-up article on this topic!

  5. Thanks, all, for a stimulating discussion!

    I agree that not taking Curly too seriously is an excellent idea. But rather than standing for a contraceptive mentality, the Curly quote noted here seems to stand for the position that someone other than a woman ought to oversee that woman’s fertility. The decision ought to be in the hands of her C.O., if she is in the military, or of those who determine whether she is eligible for “unearned entitlements” (a phrase that merits its own blog response!). This position, that women cannot be trusted with the responsibility of their own reproductive capacity, can be found at both extremes of the discussion (if we agree for the moment that the discussion is a spectrum between two and only possible positions).

    When we look past this apparent polarity of contraceptive mentality vs. not, we can remember that oral contraceptives are also used for the health of the organs of the reproductive system. They are prescribed and taken to combat endometriosis, uterine fibroids, unusually burdensome effects of menstruation, for example. Chris Vogt has made that point here previously (on Feb 3, 2012, found here: and it seems worth raising again.

    In his response to this post, David Cloutier, as always, makes an insightful point. I think he is saying that it would be better if social systems functioned in such a way that women’s participation in all areas of life (labor, the arts, family life, politics, etc.) was encouraged. It would be better if we all were able to respond to any social models which fragment women’s whole personhood with an incredulous “Huh?!? Wha–??”

    But we are not there. We have what we have. An alternative reading of support for the availability of contraception (note: that’s availability, not enforcement) is that while our social structures do enforce an underlying “either/or” reality for women, and while we work for something better, we need something in place that counters those measures which punish women for pregnancies and for having children and which punish men and women for finding these things to be important and fulfilling.

    The effects of a long legacy of sexism are powerfully with us. This is a mentality problem, yes. But for many, for the vulnerable among us (financially, medically, socially), it is also an emergency. There must be ways in which we can work toward that better world while allowing for even imperfect solutions to the effects of the world we have (so far) enabled.

  6. This related environmental issue seems worth mentioning here:

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