Today is the 47th anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, Griswold v Connecticut, which granted married people the right to use contraception -- it's worth doing the math: it wasn't until 1965 that the U.S. government permitted married couples to use contraception. (The court would not grant single people that right until seven years later, in 1972, just one year before Roe v Wade.) These very young laws have had a dramatic and positive effect on our country. The right to use contraception and plan our families has shaped our lives in ways that are fundamental. They have created a way of life that Americans now think of as their birthright.
The recent spate of anti-contraception efforts determined to roll back our rights to family planning can seem kooky, isolated incidents; extreme actions by extreme religious individuals, like Rick Santorum, or a handful of fringy groups. In fact, these attacks are coordinated efforts that involve the whole of the Republican party as well as the entire "pro-life" establishment. The war on contraception is real, mounting, increasingly successful and fueled by Americans' dismissiveness of its potential success and seriousness.
Indeed, on this issue, we as a nation have never faced higher stakes in an election year. Mitt Romney has promised to "get rid" of Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest provider of contraceptive services. He has pledged to end Title X, the nation's contraceptive program for the poor. He has taken up the whole agenda of the anti-contraception movement, even going as far as referring to commonly used forms of contraception as "abortifacients" all in an effort appease the increasingly powerful pro-life movement which now defines the Republican party platform on this issue.
President Obama, on the other hand, has been nothing less than heroic on the issue of contraception. When the Republicans attempted to shut down the government unless Planned Parenthood was defunded, he was steadfast, and saved the organization from what would be a devastating blow. With the Affordable Care Act, he will ensure all Americans have unfettered access to family planning, something studies show American's rely on especially in unpredictable economic times like we have now.
The Republicans are set on undoing Americans' ability to plan for their most important life decision and the contraceptive coverage in health care reform is the main target in their cross-hairs. Indeed, much of Americans' access to contraception rests in the hands of one federal employee, the president, and it's not an overstatement to say that this election is a referendum on Americans' access to birth control. There are two ideals clashing here, and voters need to know what each represents because, for millions of Americans, this issue will play out in life-altering ways.
If you listen to the apocalyptic rhetoric of the religious right you'll find an important theme emerge: The introduction of contraception, which permits people to have sex for fun, is bound up with all of society's ills, from the imagined breakdown of the family to an undocumented surge in crimes against children. It's a cornerstone of right wing thinking. And, no doubt, it's also the reason that not one pro-life group in the U.S. supports the use of contraception even though it's the only proven way to prevent abortion. Sadly, most Americans seem afflicted by some strain of this prejudice. If they credit the pro-choice, birth control movement for anything, it's for the dubious honor of protecting vice. Planned Parenthood has never been tagged as a pro-family values group. A greater oversight has never been made.
The religious right is right in this: Birth control is the source of seismic change. Family planning has led to a transformation of our society so rapid we've only recently had the occasion to take stock. For example, the past century has actually witnessed a steep decline in extramarital affairs as a result, it would seem, of the very changes that drive the pro-lifers wild: the more lengthy and thoughtful trying-out of marriage partners in combination with greater candor about sexual desires within marriage. Studies conducted in 1948 and 1953 found that 26 percent of women and a whopping 50 percent of men had an extramarital sexual experience.
But today in our sex and sin saturated culture the number of married people who have had an extramarital affair has plummeted to 6 percent of women and 10 percent of men, according to (conservative) Ben Wattenberg in his book, The First Measured Century, (other respected sources claim that today's infidelity rate is higher but still half the 1950s rate). Preaching about faithfulness didn't lead to this family value upgrade. Rather, the uptick in fidelity today is the result of a society that accepts our sexual urges as natural and couples can look within marriage for fulfillment of even desires once branded indecent. (It is also this belief system that supports gay marriage and the children that result from it. To us, family is so important we believe everyone has a right to make one.)
Another truth is that when the birth control revolution got underway, women waited to marry and start a family. In 1970, the average age of a new mother was 21-years-old. By 2000, the average age was 28. Harvard researchers recently reported that legalization of contraception is directly linked to the spike in the number of women becoming more highly educated and entering the "career" professions. In 1970, five percent of all lawyers and judges were women; today they are six times that. In 1970, one in 10 physicians was female, today it's one in three. Similar patterns are true for women architects, dentists, veterinarians, economists, and women in most of the engineering fields.
Few women today would trade places with the '50s woman and mother, the one fervently idealized by so-called "pro-family" groups. In the fifties, women didn't approach parity with men in education and, guess what, their housework time was constant-despite having new "time-saving" technologies. This era in which birth rates soared doubled the time devoted to child care. And with women assigned to endless tasks of the home, men shouldered the full responsibility of supporting the family economically. One dire consequence was that one in four Americans in the mid-1950s lived in poverty. By the end of the 1950s, one in three American children lived in poverty. Not surprisingly, researchers in the '50s found less than one in three married couples reported being happy or very happy with their relationship. Compare today, when 61 percent of married Americans report themselves to be "very happy" in their marriage. Part of the sour spouse problem of the '50s was that many couples didn't really want to be married to each other. Often, they were trapped into marriage by unintended pregnancy. With no sex-ed, no birth control, no legal abortion -- the exact legislative agenda of today's pro-life movement! -- teen birth rates soared, reaching highs that have not been equaled since: there were twice as many teen mothers in the '50s than today.
Postponing or planning marriage and children have allowed women to get a foothold in the workforce, and this has led to important benefits: They have made their families wealthier. Today, the rate of poverty is half what it was in the 1950s. In fact, now if a husband is the sole breadwinner the family is four-times more likely to be poor than one in which the wife brings home an income, too. Dual income homes earn nearly two-thirds more than that of families in which the husband alone works. Consequently, the percentage of children living in poverty has decreased 50 percent since 1959. Money may not be everything. But it's something.
Today, more husbands count on their wives to bring home a significant share of the family wealth; nearly one in four women now earn more than their husbands. With this, men have options to leave a negative work environment, change careers, take more career risks, and be more involved, indeed better, fathers than ever before. You'd never know this if you listened to the so-called 'pro-family' groups set on convincing us that the way we live now is tearing our country apart. Because of the pro-choice movement's efforts, we now have a true "Family Man," the very one the right wing seems to still be looking for.
Men have as much at stake as women (if not more) with the religious right's intensifying attacks against family planning. A University of Michigan study found that children's time with their fathers increased significantly only in families in which the mother worked outside the home. Fathers today spend much more time with their children than '50s fathers -- a difference of more than one hour each day. And most, by the way, are aware of this difference. Eighty-four percent report that they spend more time with their kids and get more joy out of fatherhood than their fathers did.
So much joy that the vast majority of men, 72 percent, say they would sacrifice pay and job opportunities for more time with their families. Dads today are even more affectionate with their children, 60 percent hug their school-aged kids every day and 79 percent of fathers tell their children they love them several times a week. States James Levine, who heads the Fatherhood Project. "Children whose fathers are involved with them show better education achievement, fewer problems in school, and they're better off socially."
So much for the break-up of the family caused by sexual liberation and pro-choice, pro-birth control movement. Just the opposite is true. The family is more financially secure, and more enjoyed than ever before. And what better family value is there than valuing the family?
This election year, we will decide, in dramatic fashion, the degree of access Americans, particularly the most vulnerable, will have to family planning. If we understand the implications of what scaling back access to contraception will do to our country and accept what decades of evidence, both here and worldwide, shows is the overwhelmingly beneficial impact greater access to birth control results in, our choices in November come into finer focus.
Cristina Page is author of How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America, which exposed the war on contraception, and was recently voted one of the 30 most important feminist books of all time by readers of Ms. magazine.
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