By: Nikki Cohen
The legalization of birth control, originally only for married couples in 1965 and later for all Americans in 1972, progressed the greater battle for gender equality by tenfold. But 50 some years later, lawmakers and activists alike are still tirelessly fighting to preserve the human right to choose. In the 2020 Supreme Court case Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, the Trump administration attempted to undermine a part of the Affordable Care Act by exempting employers from no-cost contraception services on the basis of religion. In late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent, courageously written from her hospital bed, she urged the court “to afford women employees equal access to preventive services, thereby advancing public health and welfare and women’s well-being.”
Without access to contraception, the chances of unwanted pregnancy dramatically increase. Politicizing birth control allows the government to regulate the female body, in turn, reinforcing oppressive gender roles. Over the last half century, gains in women’s rights have intrinsically hinged on the accessibility of contraception. Birth control is more than a pregnancy preventer, but a catalyst for bodily autonomy, sexual liberation and professional freedom.
A Brief History of Contraception in the U.S.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, around 65% of women ages 15-49 in the United States use contraception. Even though contraception usage is quotidian amongst a majority of American women today, we mustn't overlook the centuries long struggle that permitted its availability.
In 1873, Congress passed the Comstock Act: a statute that deemed contraception illicit and illegal to distribute across state lines. The Comstock precedent stood for almost one hundred years until the Supreme Court ruled contraception legal for married couples in the 1965 case Griswold V. Connecticut. The Court ruled on the basis that contraception laws infringed on marital privacy rights. Although Griswold V. Connecticut took a step in the progressive direction, rooting its decision in privacy rights distracted from the deafening role of systemic gender discrimination. In 1971, the so-called “father of reproductive rights” William Baird gave away free vaginal foam contraceptive to Boston University students. Police swiftly arrested Baird for violating a Massachusetts law prohibiting contraception distribution to unmarried people. The Supreme Court heard Eisenstadt v. Baird in 1972, where they overruled the Massachusetts law on the basis of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Prescribed Gender Roles
Baird’s courageous defiance challenged taboos against premarital sex. Before Eisenstadt v. Baird overturned legal precedents barring contraception access, cultural paradigms favored the nuclear family structure. This definition of family assumed the father breadwinner and the mother caretaker. The monolithic American woman was expected to be, (in addition to white), a wife, a mother, and a servant to the private sphere.
This narrative of womanhood inferred that all women share the same femininity: an identity attached to their reproductive abilities. And if she refused to assume this identity, it was forced upon her through laws restricting reproductive rights. Although gender is assumed to be an extension of biology, it is really just a socially constructed identity associated with the performance of masculinity or femininity.
Women in the Workforce
Deeming contraception and abortion illegal trapped women in their prescribed gender roles, disregarding any agency over a professional or educational future. But following substantial legal wins coupled with large-scale social reforms, married mothers became the fastest growing demographic of the labor force in the 1970s. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of women in the workforce has been steadily increasing since the 1950s (Figure 1). And there was a notable spike in the rate of women joining the labor force from 1964 to 1974 (Figure 2).
Figure 1: Figure 2:
The Struggle Wages On
Today, women who rely on public health benefits remain victim to America’s inherently patriarchal iron fist. In 2017, the Trump administration planned to eliminate a provision of the Affordable Care Act that ensured coverage for birth control without a copay. Former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards warned that such threats to the ACA would implicate around 62 million American women who rely on guaranteed contraception coverage. Further, right- leaning states continuously pass Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws in an attempt to strengthen pro-life agendas. By setting unnecessarily high medical standards that women’s health clinics struggle to meet, TRAP laws often lead to clinic closures in large numbers. Threats to close clinics or “defund Planned Parenthood” jeopardizes millions of low income women's access to birth control, abortion procedures, STD testing, cancer screenings, and much more.
Continuous attacks on reproductive rights more likely implicate low income, minority women. These women already face greater disadvantages-- implicit biases, systemic discrimination, and socio-economic barriers-- in professional and educational settings without unexpected motherhood as an additional limiting factor. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Equal Protection Clause in Eisenstadt v. Baird, they deemed access to contraception a constitutional right for all American women; not a privilege.
Reproductive Rights are Human Rights
While laying in a hospital bed during Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wasn’t only fighting for her own life. Justice Ginsberg spent her professional years challenging the notion that motherhood is finite and continued doing so even in the mere months leading up to her death. Though she has passed, we mustn’t lay our weapons down in defeat. As the reality of a conservative Supreme Court looms around an already divided America, threatening to strike down the Affordable Care Act and overturn Roe v. Wade, the battle for reproductive freedom must wage on. Legalized birth control liberated American women from the walls of the home and the chains of a desolate future. When women have the freedom to choose, they are finally recognized as fully human.