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


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Trump's politics are not the problem.

The fiery Milwaukee Sheriff is on the shortlist to head the Department of Homeland Security.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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