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Two to Tango: Why Women (Shouldn't) Have to Fight for Contraception

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I was fifteen and seated in my dentist's examination chair the first time I realized I might face disapproval if I made known the fact that I take oral contraceptives.

"What medicines do you take?" asked the pretty Russian hygienist, busily making notes in my chart. Let's call her Martina. "Um," I said, trying to remember the name of the oral contraceptive I was taking. "Ortho Tri-Cyclen," I said.

Martina swiveled around in her office chair and looked at me appraisingly for a moment. "Well, good girl," she said finally, continuing to look at me, then glancing at the top right corner of my chart. The place where my birthdate was noted.

Good girl? Innocently puzzled, I frowned at Martina until she seemed to sense that I wasn't catching her drift. "It's good to be responsible," she said, touching my shoulder and mustering a supportive expression that did not reach her eyes.

Then, it clicked. Martina had made the assumption that my use of the pill meant that I was sexually active, and was judging me. And though I was taking the pill for medical reasons, I felt ashamed. I felt impelled to correct her, defend myself against her judgment.

Rationally, I knew that it did not matter what Martina thought. That she was wrong. That even if she was correct, she did not have the right to judge me. But the embarrassment and shame her look evoked were powerful. I grappled with my discomfort for the next half hour, as Martina poked around my mouth, imagining her lips pursed disapprovingly as she measured the person me against her moral standards and found me lacking.

This, my friends assured me in the coming days, was not an uncommon reaction by any means. That for a teenaged girl, disclosing your use of oral contraceptives is akin to giving license for others to judge and criticize you, often based on false, narrow-minded assumptions like the one Martina made about me. I set aside my indignation and forgot the encounter.

Today, years after Martina showed me that not even established, common practices like taking the pill are beyond controversy, I was surprised to turn on the news to see an all-male panel discussing an issue I'd expect most women to have an opinion about: their access to the pill. This troubled me.

Before I share my perspective on this issue (and I'll leave commentary about the flawed debates to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who did it best and funniest), and though they have oft been mentioned over the last few days, some important facts about birth control bear repeating. Regardless of one's moral convictions, the facts are these:

Oral contraceptives, including Plan B, are not "abortive pills." To say otherwise would be scientifically incorrect, as the pills we are discussing simply do not terminate existing pregnancies. We are simply not talking about abortion.

There are many reasons to take the pill. Some of these reasons are not related to avoiding pregnancy. According to the University of Florida, the Guttmacher Institute found that 30% of women on the pill take it to alleviate menstrual symptoms.

The pill can be really expensive. I have paid about $100/month out of pocket with insurance to cover my prescription-an amount that is prohibitively expensive for many young women. Over the approximately 30 years during which a woman can become pregnant, that would add up to a cost of $36,000.

Condoms are not as expensive as the pill, not even close. The average 20-year-old man has sex about 7.7 times per month. Rounding that up to 100 times per year, a man would be able to afford to buy a year's supply of condoms for about $25, which is far less than many women pay in a single month for the pill, and the added cost of obtaining a prescription for it.

Giving out contraception saves insurance companies money. As with many types of preventative care, providing the pill free of charge is actually cheaper.

But the reason these arguments are not working isn't because nobody has heard them. They aren't working because the money isn't really the issue. The issue is simply that there are still people out there -- people like Martina -- who see access to the pill as a license to have sex, which, to them, is unacceptable. It you don't want to get pregnant, they say, don't have sex.

For all the progress we as a society have made toward equality for women, there remains a double standard on the issue of sex. It is still far less acceptable for women to be sexually active, if their intent is not to bear children, than it is for men. And while this is changing, and one day may no longer be true, the immutable fact that women are the ones who get pregnant means that we will never truly be on a level playing field when it comes to the issue of contraception.

Somehow, I feel certain that if men could get pregnant, birth control would be readily available, probably dispensed from containers mounted by every public water fountain. But the fact is, though it takes two to tango, only the woman may become pregnant. Only the woman may be asked to surrender her body to host a baby she doesn't want. Only the woman may be forced to make a difficult choice. Only the woman is guaranteed no escape from the physical and mental marks any decision will leave.

A man and a woman both step onto the dance floor to tango. When the music ends, the man may walk away, certain that his body is free of the risk of becoming host to a baby. Sometimes, the woman can walk away, too. Every so often, the woman looks down to find she is tethered to that dance floor.

But maybe that's just a woman's burden to bear. And, hey, women: even if you become pregnant without wanting to be, you can always just make the best of it.