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the power to decide
why it’s necessary for women to control their birth control
by sarah ficke (@DameMystery)

When Sandra Fluke stood up to testify in front of Congress on February 23rd about the importance of accessible birth control for all women, she probably didn’t expect to be called a prostitute. Women probably didn’t think that, in March of 2012, we’d be defending our right to use a medicine that was approved for sale 52 years ago. And yet, here we are again having to convince people – primarily men – that women do have the right to have sex without pregnancy.

We live in a time when men are lowering or erasing the barriers that allow them to get women pregnant (see: insurance-subsidized Viagra), while making it harder and harder for women to prevent conception. While the issue is birth control, no-one is really talking about condoms in this case. Condoms are available on supermarket shelves, they cost less to buy, and they are known to prevent STIs – a definite medical benefit. They also require the consent of a man. The real subject of the conversation is the pill: the birth control method that women control and that women can practice with or without a man’s knowledge or consent.* The question then becomes not just should women use contraception, but should women be allowed to choose contraception on their own? There are many excellent reasons why the answer is – and should always be – yes.

Face it: There is no routine physical event that men go through that is as mentally, physically, and economically challenging as pregnancy is to a woman. America is a first-world country with a great medical system. And still, if a perfectly healthy woman gets pregnant she may face a series of complications beyond morning sickness (and consider: throwing up every day for three months is a normal side-effect of pregnancy). These complications may include anemia, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia. Some, like anemia, can be treated with supplements. Others, like preeclampsia, require serious medication and bed rest. Thanks to our health care system, women in America don’t die from pregnancy the way they used to, but getting pregnant is still a significant health challenge.

Pregnancy is also mentally challenging. It doesn’t just make a woman go up a few dress sizes; it reconfigures the hormones and chemicals in her body. Depression, both during and after pregnancy, is common. There are also less clinical mental side-effects: the stress of nurturing an extra life along with your own, the anxiety of doing everything you should be doing, the need to be constantly present in the moment. As our own Jael McHenry wrote, “You can't afford to ever not be aware of what's happening, what you're doing, right now.” It can be, as she says, an amazing experience. But it’s not mentally easy.

And the economic challenge? Let's start with the discrimination. Thanks to Title IX, it is illegal to push pregnant girls or teen mothers out of school, yet there are places where it still happens. According to a CDC fact sheet, “Only about 50% of teen mothers receive a high school diploma by age 22.” Without a high school diploma, it is extremely hard to find a job that can support one person, let alone a woman and her child.

Adult women who become pregnant can also face economic difficulties. Back in 2005, USA Today ran this article about the high rate of pregnant women being forced out of the workplace. As CBS reported in November, pregnant women face anxiety about how to keep their footing in the workforce and move forward with their careers. It is unfortunately easy for a woman to go on maternity leave (which is usually classified as a disability leave, by the way) and return to find a hostile environment, or her work outsourced to someone else.**

These attitudes expose the patriarchal fantasy that underpins our country’s perception of work: Work is a male activity, uninterrupted by any competing commitments. This fantasy hearkens back to the “good old days” when serial pregnancies kept women in the home, while men supported them financially. Some leaders want us to go back to those days, but you know what? Those “good old days” never really existed. Then, as now, one working-class income was not enough to maintain a large family. What we can look back on are centuries of starvation, child labor, and persistent poverty, as women struggled to feed the children they could not help having.

There are other reasons I could bring up in favor of birth control in this article. For example, I could ask how our already-overburdened school system would cope if every family had 5-8 children instead of 0-3. Or I could point out the non-contraceptive health benefits to the pill. However, this article isn’t really about why birth control is necessary. It’s about why it’s necessary for women to control their birth control.

For nine months (assuming she carries to term), a woman must cope with the results of being pregnant. She can’t walk away from pregnancy. She can’t put her pregnancy down for an evening and pick it up again the next day. She can’t give it to a man while she goes to work or hits the spa. She can’t give away the morning sickness, the dietary supplements, the silent looks at work, the strangers groping her belly. She can’t give away her fatigue, her anxiety, or her economic vulnerability.

That is why every woman deserves the right to choose for herself whether or not she should start a pregnancy. Rather than legislating against the pill, or pushing up the price to make it inaccessible to those who need it most, religious leaders should trust the women they lead to consult their own consciences. If their leadership is any good, those women won’t use the pill, even if it is offered to them. Unfortunately, many religions are incapable of trusting the women who follow them, preferring instead to deny them the right to make decisions at all. “Don’t use birth control” becomes “thou shalt not have access to birth control.” While that attitude is allowable coming from the pulpit – after all, we have religious freedom – it is unacceptable in our public laws. As a country, we should beware of how legislating to protect the “religious freedom” of select groups may limit or infringe on the human rights of other religious and non-religious Americans alike.

I am a woman, and I have the right to say yes to sex and no to pregnancy.

*As this article shows, the pill’s invention did more than prevent pregnancy – it actually helped shift – a little – the gendered balance of power in this country.

**This attitude also impacts men who step in to share childcare responsibilities. A friend of mine was recently told that it was “becoming an issue” that he had to leave work at a consistent time each evening to pick up his child from daycare.


Sarah Ficke will make sport for you, and laugh at you in her turn. She has channeled her obsession for books into a career as an English professor.

more about sarah ficke


liberty and justice for all
but only on our terms
by sarah ficke
topic: news
published: 8.23.02

a part of our speech
by sarah ficke
topic: news
published: 4.16.12


tracey kelley
3.7.12 @ 7:49a

Excellent. This debate is mind-boggling. We should not be having this discussion in this century. To have someone argue that Viagra is permissible for coverage because it's a medical condition but not the birth control is utter nonsense.

If the opposition's argument is to be believed, then the only reason to obtain an erection is to have sex for procreation. However, the site MaleFertilityMD points out that: (con't)

tracey kelley
3.7.12 @ 7:52a

(con't) Taking Viagra does not help male fertility. "If you are suffering from male factor infertility, there is no clinical evidence that Viagra will affect or reverse your condition. While Viagra can enhance your ability to attain and sustain an erection, this is not an indicator that you are or are not infertile. If you and your partner have been trying to achieve pregnancy for a year or more, or you have reason to believe you may be infertile, consult your family practice physician or urologist."

What glaring hypocrisy. It's all simple religious rhetoric.

sarah ficke
3.7.12 @ 2:28p

Thanks for that information on Viagra, Tracey. It blows me away that drugs like Viagra are regularly advertised and promoted, yet birth control is suppressed.

sarah ficke
3.7.12 @ 2:35p

Also, I came across a lot of interesting things after I turned this column in. One was Senator Lisa Murkowski's comments about her choice to vote for the Blunt Amendment and the backlash she got from Alaskan women. Murkowski called the amendment a "messaging amendment" and seemed surprised that women felt so threatened by it. To me, that's part of the problem. We don't put people in congress to send messages about their personal beliefs, we put them there to make laws that protect our rights. She seems to be reconsidering her position now that she's aware how many women's lives this seriously impacts, and I hope that others will take a second look at their own positions.


tracey kelley
3.8.12 @ 1:18a

And now, there's this nonsense:
Utah Senate Passes Bill Banning Contraception Education

adam kraemer
3.9.12 @ 3:22p

Didn't Freakonomics postulate that the invention of the pill led to lower crime numbers some 20 years later, too?

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