03/08/2011 12:04 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Today's Most Important Civil Rights Battle (It's Not What You Think)

We've come a long way since the first International Women's Day was celebrated 100 years ago. In the century since, women have gone further than we ever could have imagined, including all the way to space, and to the head of major industries, and of government right here on Earth. To date 60 women have served as non-royal heads of state worldwide. That means women were either elected or appointed president or prime minister of countries that, just a century ago, may not have even allowed women to vote. Pretty impressive progress, if I do say so myself.

But progress doesn't mean perfection, and there are a number of areas in which women still struggle for equality and civil rights. Chief among them? The struggle for access to contraception. Some of you may be surprised that I would place the battle over birth control ahead of others, like pay equity and the right to choose. But I do. The reason? Because if we don't achieve full access, on this issue we will never achieve our full rights on the others. (Click here to see some of the earliest forms of contraception, some of which endure today.)

For anyone needing further proof of the political power of this issue, I encourage you to read the Vanity Fair piece on Ireland's economic collapse by Michael Lewis. It notes that some economists believe that part of the country's surprising, brief economic boom in recent decades was due, in part, to the legalization of birth control there in 1979. A pair of Harvard demographers speculate that this, (coupled with other factors), helped lift significant numbers of the generation that followed out of poverty there.

The Supreme Court struck down the last remaining legal barriers to contraception here in America in 1965. But in the years since, the battle to remove barriers to contraception for women has proved about as daunting as the battle to remove barriers to equality for African Americans proved after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

As I noted on The Dylan Ratigan Show, Sen. John McCain famously found himself playing defense during the 2008 presidential campaign when asked by a female reporter for his thoughts on insurers who cover Viagra but not birth control. I could have saved that reporter some time and Sen. McCain an awkward pause by reminding him that he had previously voted twice against requiring insurers to cover contraception.

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, HALF of all health insurance plans do not provide contraceptive coverage.

Removing barriers to contraception for women worldwide has been a priority of the Obama administration, which restored $244 million in family planning funding to the UN Population Fund, which faced significant cuts under the Bush administration.

But one of the biggest battles over providing fair and equitable access to birth control, regardless of class status, is taking place right here, right now in America. According to the new federal health care law, insurers cannot charge for preventative services. While medication intended to "prevent" something -- you know, like pregnancy -- seems like it would fit, the Obama administration is waiting for a ruling from a panel of independent legal experts to determine whether or not "preventative services" includes contraception. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (you know, a group of actual doctors) believes that contraception fits any reasonable definition of preventative care, but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and some prominent conservative groups strongly disagree.

What I find strange about this is that these groups also oppose abortion, so it would stand to reason that they would support insuring that fewer women ever find themselves in the position in which they would consider having one. And greater access to contraception does just that. But while Planned Parenthood is under attack on one front, the rest of us who are trying to obtain contraception through other avenues find ourselves under attack on all other fronts.

So while an American female president someday would certainly be nice, my humble wish for this International Women's Day is that one day soon we will celebrate an equally important breakthrough for women: namely that in the very near future, we will no longer be penalized, financially, physically, legally or emotionally, for trying to make responsible choices for our families and ourselves.

This post originally appeared on for which Goff is a Contributing Editor.