You’re standing with Sandra Fluke to advance women’s rights… If you really want to help, sit down.
Don’t get me wrong. I support Sandra Fluke wholeheartedly. The Georgetown University law student has become a spokeswoman against pending legislation that would allow religiously affiliated employers to “opt out” of covering contraception for employees’ insurance policies. Ms. Fluke’s Congressional testimony addressed the lack of contraception coverage for students at the Georgetown University Law Center, and the serious consequences that this policy presents for women’s health. But framing contraception mainly as a matter of “preventive medicine,” as the recent debates have done, does a huge disservice to the women’s movement, and threatens the progress of women’s rights.
The birth control pill is, indeed, preventive medicine. I know firsthand. On June 8th, 2011, I went to bed with shooting pain in my lower abdomen and back. Within 48 hours, I had been admitted to the hospital, and had had an emergency appendectomy and exploratory abdominal surgery. The diagnosis? Ruptured ovarian cysts. I spent the following two weeks in bed and in pain. After three pelvic exams, and a trans-vaginal ultrasound, I was given a prescription for birth control pills, and told the pill could prevent the cysts from forming.*
My experience pales in comparison to some of Ms. Fluke’s testimony. I was lucky: Ms. Fluke mentioned a woman whose ovarian cyst grew to be so large, that her entire ovary had to be removed. Failing to provide these women with access to affordable healthcare sends the message that women’s health is not a priority. Failing to provide them with preventive care for a serious medical disorder ignores their immediate health needs in the name of morality and values. As Ms. Fluke rightly explained, “When you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are legitimate and whose are not, a woman’s health takes a back-seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.”
Still, the dialogue that emerges frames contraception as treatment for these severe medical conditions, not family planning, and especially not women exercising their own agency. This may not be visibly detrimental to the women’s movement right now, but where will it put us in 20 years? Like the “War on Welfare” that preceded it, the “War on Women’s Contraception” targets low-income women, women of color (as seen by the attacks on Planned Parenthood and Susan G. Komen’s defunding debacle last month), and any other woman who is simply having too much sex. Why would Rush Limbaugh call Sandra Fluke a “slut,” and “prostitute [who] wants to be paid to have sex?” The answer is this: Women are being slut-shamed in order to de-legitimize their claim to birth control.
In response to similar Conservative backlash, Liberals are quick to qualify Ms. Fluke’s testimony, emphasizing that we are talking about health needs, not sexual activity. And Liberals have had practice normalizing “abnormal” behavior, at the expense of the greater movement. Advocates of gay marriage, for example, highlight the similarities between straight couples and gay couples, directly targeting “straight America.” Didn’t you know? Gay people want to be in monogamous relationships (just like you!), married (just like you!), and they want kids (just like you!), and they do everything else (just like you!). This sort of rhetoric only further marginalizes anyone who doesn’t adhere to the newly created “Liberal” norm. Emphasizing gay marriage while ignoring important and relevant issues, like transphobia and homophobia, workplace discrimination, and intimate partner violence within LGBTQ relationships, doesn’t help achieve full equality.
One Democratic voice isn’t taking the safe route to re-frame contraception. Former DNC Spokeswoman Karen Finney recently told Ed Schultz, “This has to do with our values as a country. We say that we believe that people deserve access to basic healthcare. Contraception is part of basic healthcare. That’s what this is about.”
Ms. Finney is right – Contraception is part of basic healthcare. By defending birth control as treatment, we undo the progress that has been made in the past fifty years by women’s liberation movements. By reframing the birth control discussion and focusing solely on preventive care, the real fear emerges: We’re still afraid of women having sex.
*Ovulation can cause the formation of ovarian cysts. Because the Pill stops ovulation, it can help with preventing ovarian cysts from forming and subsequently rupturing.