Recently my mother told me something shocking. When she decided that her family was complete and sought a tubal ligation from her doctor (aka "to have her tubes tied"), she was told that her husband would have to sign a form giving his consent. This was not during the dark ages, but the dawn of the 1980s. And this was not some third world country practicing sharia law, but Texas. (Yes, I can already hear some of the 3rd world jokes many of you are making about my home state right about now. To which I say, "Hook 'em Horns.")
Her story was a stark reminder that it really wasn't that long ago that our country was stuck in the dark ages when it comes to women having the right to control our own bodies. It was also a powerful reminder that while abortion remains the most divisive reproductive rights issue -- and the one likely to garner the most headlines -- it is not necessarily the most important. There are countless reproductive rights issues that affect all women -- including those who may not consider themselves pro-choice. These are the issues I consider most at stake with the ongoing assault on Planned Parenthood. And it is through these issues that President Obama may end up leaving his greatest legacy.
Last week a nonpartisan panel convened by the Institute of Medicine recommended that insurance companies be required to cover birth control for free as a form of preventive care under the new health care law. If the government follows the panel's recommendations, this could end up being not just one of the most important moments in the reproductive rights movement since Roe v. Wade, but the most important moment ever. (Click here to see some of the most important reproductive rights cases besides Roe v. Wade.)
A poll released during the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill found that cost remains a key barrier for couples when it comes to using contraception. As I have noted in a previous column, "though it seems like it would be a no brainer for insurers to cover birth control rather than face the prospect of eventually covering another dependent, a 2007 Mercer study found that while about 70 percent of insurers provide coverage for erectile dysfunction medications, (as in Viagra) HALF of all health insurance plans do not provide contraceptive coverage."
Though legally and theoretically available to all, contraception has certainly not been accessible to all, with class status and education historically being one of the indicators of contraception use and family size. (A recent analysis found that low-income men who abuse their partners often hide or sabotage birth control as another form of controlling them.) With poverty being a key indicator for dropping out of high school and incarceration, this means that the ability to control the size of one's family is a social and political issue that affects many others.
I surprised a reporter recently when I said that I consider family planning the most important domestic or international political issue, because from my vantage point it affects almost all others in some way, shape or form. Wars are often fought over land or resources that people are trying to protect (or take) so that their families can have them and benefit from them. The environment struggles in large part from overpopulation and overuse. People often turn to crime, like theft and dealing drugs, because they lack the skills or opportunity to support their families, or themselves, any other way.
This is why I have always been baffled when those who claim to care about these issues, and others -- particularly abortion -- don't treat access to contraception as one of their most important political issues too. But if the Obama administration makes headway in removing the financial barrier to contraception -- for all women -- it will have made one of its greatest policy contributions not just to women, but all families.