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Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner Headshot

Sex, Contraception, Motherhood & the Current Madness

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Sex, freedom, religion, women's rights, motherhood, birth control, and politics.

It's a volatile mix.

And right now there's a growing drumbeat of attacks on universal access to full coverage for crucial contraceptive health care that cannot be ignored:

  • The Panel: You've likely seen the picture that shocked our nation last week: An all male "expert" witness panel testifying about birth control before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
  • The Bishops: You've also likely read about the Catholic Bishops and other religious leaders objecting to the part of the Affordable Care Act (health care reform) that calls for ending co-pays on birth control and other preventive health services. The end result was a compromise exempting religious employers who object to contraception from paying for birth control directly, with insurance companies picking up the cost. But the Catholic Bishops don't like the compromise either, and now they're taking the fight farther.
  • The Candidates: And, you've likely heard the comments of presidential candidates attempting to use women's health for their own electoral gain. Check out this quote by one of the current presidential candidate frontrunners, Rick Santorum,

"One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is I think the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea ... Many in the Christian faith have said, 'Well, that's okay ... contraception's okay.' It's not okay because it's a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be. They're supposed to be within marriage, for purposes that are, yes, conjugal ... but also procreative. That's the perfect way that a sexual union should happen."

  • The Aspirin: And I'm sure you didn't miss Foster Friess, the man behind a Super PAC for Rick Santorum, saying in an interview on MSNBC that, "Back in my days, they used Bayer Aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly."

You've got to be kidding me. An aspirin joke. That's all he's got when there's so much at stake?

Reliable birth control that permits women to responsibly control how many children to have, and when to have them, has been nothing short of revolutionary -- not just for women and mothers, but for our country as a whole. It's improved the health of women and their families, as well as given women and mothers increased access to economic and political power unlike any other time in history.

Make no mistake, this current backlash against full coverage for contraceptive health care is really a backlash against the increasing empowerment of women -- and against mothers, in particular.

Yes, mothers. Outrage aside, there's a subtle undercurrent throughout these attacks that must be addressed: The assumption is that mothers, including married mothers, aren't regular users of contraception. The opposite is true.

In fact, the use of birth control by women and mothers to control when, and how many children to have is so ubiquitous that when I first saw that picture of all male "experts" on a Congressional panel about birth control, heard about the Catholic Bishops' battle against everyone having full access to the contraception health care coverage they need, read that Santorum quote, and heard the aspirin joke, my jaw dropped.

And then I double-checked my calendar: It's 2012.

But I shouldn't have been surprised. People have argued over women's and mothers' access to birth control since before the availability of effective birth control.

While many of us today, in 2012, take access to birth control for granted, it hasn't always been this way. Here's a little history: In 1873, after vulcanized rubber condoms and diaphragms became a more reliable method of birth control, the Comstock Act passed, prohibiting advertisements, information, and distribution of birth control and allowing the postal service to confiscate birth control sold through the mail.

Then in 1916, Margaret Sanger bucked the laws and opened her first birth control clinic, enduring a series of arrests for providing contraception. It wasn't until 1964 that the Supreme Court (Griswold v. Connecticut) said married couples could use birth control--but 26 states still denied birth control. Finally, not so very long ago, in 1972, the Supreme Court (Baird v. Eisenstadt) legalized birth control for everyone, married or unmarried.

In the U.S. today, studies show that 99% of women and 98% of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives. And the average U.S. family has fewer than two children.

What's at stake is tremendous: Women's and mothers' self-determination, economic security, health, personal freedom, and the ability to, for example, get an education and/or to start a career prior to having children.

And, here's the elephant in the living room: Becoming a mother is a big deal. A really big deal. Mothers, more than other women, face significant economic barriers and still struggle for social, economic, and political equality.

Consider this:

  • Having a baby is a leading cause of poverty spells -- a time when income dips below what's needed for food and rent.
  • Big wage hits come with modern motherhood: Women without children make 90 cents to a man's dollar, mothers make 73 cents to a man's dollar, single mothers make about 60 cents, and women of color make even less.
  • There's significant discrimination in the workforce against mothers: One study found mothers with equal resumes as non-mothers were more than 80% less likely to be hired, and that mothers with equal resumes received starting salaries $11,000 lower than those paid to non-mothers.
  • Studies show that the wage hits on mothers increase with each additional child a woman has in her family.

Over 80% of American women have children by the time they're 44-years-old, meaning that vast majority of women face these issues at some point in their lives.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not in any way saying that people shouldn't have children. My children are my heart, and like mothers everywhere I work to make sure that they get the education, health services, and care they need to grow to be happy, responsible adults. Mothers care deeply about their children, and we hear from MomsRising members each day about how they're fighting for their children with their hearts and souls. Part of that fight is making sure we all have access to birth control: Giving parents control over planning their families allows them, in turn, to give their children the best futures possible.

Yes, birth control matters to moms. The economic security and health of mothers and families across our nation are dependent on mothers' ability to control how many children to have, and when to have them. Frankly, just providing the basics for one child requires a lot of money. For example, just a year of childcare costs more than college in many states!

In fact, in 2010 it cost $226,920 on average for a middle-income, two-parent family to raise one child from birth to age 18. That's not including college.

To be sure, mothers and parents are working hard in the face of heavy economic obstacles. Now, in order to make ends meet, most modern families need two parents in the labor force; and three-quarters of moms are now in the labor force.

But even with parents working hard, many families are struggling: Recent Census data showed that nearly one in six American women are living in poverty, and 22% of children are living in poverty. Imagine what the poverty rate would be if mothers couldn't control the number of children they were having.

Yet right now, even as families are struggling, politicians are making news by playing unfair games with birth control. Let's be clear: The well-being and economic security of women, mothers, children and families should never be used as a political football.

This madness has got to stop.

It's worth noting that many of those same leaders who are cavalierly playing political football with birth control, have long opposed the family-friendly policies that exist in most other nations. Policies like access to paid family and medical leave for new moms (which 177 countries have in place), access to affordable early learning/childcare, access to paid sick days for everyone (over 160 other countries have this in place), health care, and fair pay.

Studies show that passing such policies not only can raise all boats and benefit both the economy and taxpayers in the long run, but also help lower the wage gaps between mothers and non-mothers, and thus between women and men. Importantly, without such policies in place, mothers and families are truly struggling. One in four children are experiencing food scarcity due to poverty in our nation.

We can and must do better. We must build a nation where both businesses and families can thrive. And to do this, women and mothers must be able to plan their pregnancies. This is essential to the well-being and basic economic security of families.

So instead of wasting time denying women and mothers coverage for contraceptive health care, how about focusing on making life better for the mothers who are struggling now to support their families in the face of our failure to adopt family-friendly workplace policies and address discrimination?

Aspirin isn't going to cut it. It's time to stop the madness.