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June 4, 2013

A New Chapter in the Struggle for Reproductive Rights

“The Birth Control movement has its roots in the history of subjection. In the past women have been brood animals to the state, to industry, to the church. Whenever they have raised their heads and tried to loosen the chains that bound them, they have met with opposition–opposition often cloaked in apparent solicitude for their moral and spiritual well-being, and efforts have been made to keep them in servitude in the sphere that men marked out for them.

Today, however, women are rising, even though slowly, in fundamental revolt. Their efforts at superficial reforms are steps in that direction. But more essential is their demand for the right to voluntary motherhood. They are determined to decide for themselves whether they shall become mothers, under what conditions, and when. They are beginning to ask the purposes for which their children will be used; whether as slaves or freemen. This is a fundamental question. This is a fundamental revolt. It is for women the key to the temple of liberty.”

~ Margaret Sanger,
December 1923

margaret sangerNinety years have passed since Margaret Sanger wrote those words. It was especially evident to Sanger that the powers of her time deemed it preferable to keep women of the lower classes in ignorance about, and limit their access to, options for contraception.  She wrote in wrenching detail about women feeling the heartbeat of the baby in their womb but hoping, with the agony of denying a natural love, for a stillbirth because there were already too many mouths to feed.  Many of these mothers died themselves from the rigors of childbirth.  She became a pioneer not only in advocating for more control by women over their reproductive lives, but also in how to educate women about birth control and innovate safer, more effective means to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

Now a new chapter has opened in the ongoing battle over reproductive rights.  In 2010, Congress passed the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. the “Obamacare” bill), which mandated for the first time in U.S. history that every American have health care insurance—including access to birth control.  Now that access to contraception is being challenged.  The traditionally anti-birth control, conservative religious groups have been joined by companies to deny insurance coverage for birth control.  In May, the 10th Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver began hearing the case of a for-profit business seeking an exemption from paying for medical insurance coverage of contraception on the basis that it was against the religious beliefs of the company’s founding family.  Eight judges, instead of the usual three, are hearing this case which is being brought by the largest of some 30  for-profit companies seeking the same exemption.

Attorneys arguing against allowing this exemption point out that if a company can deny employees medical insurance coverage based on the owner’s religious beliefs, it is a violation of the employee’s freedoms because it demands that the employee accept the owner’s religious beliefs.  Echoes of the struggles that Margaret Sanger fought are present in this case.

Though Sanger might be disappointed that the battle over reproductive rights still continues, she would no doubt be pleased with the progress that has been achieved since women gained the ability to control whether and how many children they have. The positive results can be seen in the decline in infant and maternal mortality in the U.S.and many countries around the world where birth control is legal and practiced.  A recently released CDC report, covered by the Huffington Post on February 14, 2013, that shows that “…99.1 percent of sexually experienced women ages 15 to 44 who were surveyed between 2006 and 2010 have used some form of contraception, up from 98.2 percent in 2002. Ninety-three percent of sexually experienced women have used condoms at some point in their lives, and roughly four out of every five women have used birth control pills.”  In the U.S. during the 1920’s the number of deaths of women undergoing abortions, which were then illegal, averaged about 15,000 per year.  In 2008, the last full year for which such numbers are available, the number of deaths in women from abortion, now legal, was 12 per year.

maternal mortality rate USGiven the positive impact that birth control has had for mothers and children, it is difficult to comprehend why anyone would deny that prevention through contraception is not a far better choice for society, and worthy of full support.

The First Global Conference on Contraception, Reproductive and Sexual Health was held this May in Copenhagen, Denmark.  This first global gathering, which aims to help women who remain in societies that deny them control over their reproductive lives, owes a debt to Margaret Sanger.  Her legacy now touches women around the world; a far cry from when she first embarked on her crusade as one dedicated nurse, from a family of 11 children, to free poor women from a life of reproductive bondage.