Birth control rights encounter threat on 40th anniversary

Birth control rights encounter threat on 40th anniversary

Barbara Miner

May 26, 2005

Forty years ago on June 7, in one of the century's most important advances for women, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a married couple's right to birth control. Today, that right is under attack.

The 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision helped usher in an era when, for the first time in history, women could control when and how many children they would have. Today, virtually all American women -- 98 percent -- use a contraceptive method at some point in their lives, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.

But that is not stopping religious and ideological extremists from declaring war on birth control.

Bolstered by religious conservatives willing to flex their bulging political muscle, the movement against birth control has moved beyond the fringe. Across the country, many pharmacists won't fill birth control prescriptions, some hospital emergency rooms refuse to dispense emergency contraception and some state legislatures are cutting funds for family planning.

Conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church, meanwhile, are pushing for stricter enforcement of the church's stance that all forms of artificial birth control are immoral.

Many anti-abortionists, taking their war to a new level, argue that hormonal birth control is "chemical abortion." To make their case, they rely on a religious, rather than medical, definition of pregnancy.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which represents more than 47,000 members, defines pregnancy as occurring when a fertilized egg implants in the uterus.

But extremists in the anti-abortion movement have ditched this definition, arguing instead that pregnancy begins at conception when a sperm fertilizes the egg. What's more, they argue that this fertilized egg -- which is smaller than the period at the end of this sentence -- has the same moral and legal rights as a living human being.

Much of the current controversy centers on emergency contraception. A high dose of this hormonal birth control is 90 percent effective in preventing a pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse. Often called "the morning after pill," it has no effect if a woman is already pregnant, and it should not be confused with the RU-486 abortion pill.

Both the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association advocate emergency contraception's over-the-counter availability. Planned Parenthood estimates that wider access to this birth control could prevent 1.7 million unintended pregnancies and 800,000 abortions each year.

Yet the campaign against emergency contraception is so strong that Wal-Mart, the country's largest retailer and the fourth-largest provider of pharmaceuticals, won't even stock the drug.

The extremists have also held up the Food and Drug Administration's approval of over-the-counter status for emergency contraception. (Canada, by contrast, granted over-the-counter status on April 19.)

Forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the constitutional right to privacy and held that state legislatures could not outlaw contraceptives.

Today, extremists have set their sights not just on Roe v. Wade, but also on Griswold v. Connecticut. It's time to wake up and defend women's rights -- or find ourselves locked into Stone Age medicine.

Barbara Miner is a Milwaukee-based writer specializing in social issues. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.