protesting the pill: anti-choicers prove my point again

Many bloggers are writing about Protest The Pill Day, first brought to my attention by Jen (of Keep Insite Open), via Joe. My. God. Since I don't link to wingnuts, I'll link to JMG instead: go here to read a bit about it, including Dan Savage's response.

The anti-choicers will be protesting oral contraceptives on the anniversary of the Griswold decision. Yes, they are protesting the prevention of unwanted pregnancies.

I've been involved in the pro-choice movement for almost 30 years. (It's always easy for me to date my activism: 1980 = Ronald Reagan.) In all that time, I have seen again and again how the primary concern of the anti-abortion-rights movement is not stopping abortions. It is controlling women's lives. Punishing women for having sex. Punishing women for being independent. And curtailing that independence in any way they can.

To state the patently obvious, if the anti-choicers were concerned with reducing the number of abortions that are performed, they would promote contraceptive use. They would champion quality sex education. They would understand oral contraceptives - which, although not for everyone, are an extremely effective method of pregnancy prevention - as the modern miracle that they are. And they would hail Griswold as a huge step towards reducing the necessity and prevalence of abortion.

The Pill is a contraceptive. It prevents pregnancy. It is not an abortofacient: it does not induce abortions. But the anti-choicers hate Griswold, and they hate The Pill. Why? Because The Pill gave women sexual freedom.

Griswold is, without a doubt, one of the most important steps towards women's equality and freedom in US history. It is at least as important as Roe v. Wade. Leaving aside complicated Constitutional questions about the right to privacy, the short story is that Griswold legalized birth control, or made it illegal for a state to stop a married woman - a married woman! - from obtaining birth control. That opened the door for other important decisions that expanded reproductive rights, and so, women's equality.

Here in the beginning of the 21st Century, it may be difficult for us to relate to what The Pill represents. For a woman to be able to control her reproduction - in advance, without involving anyone else in the decision-making, in complete privacy, by herself for herself - changed everything.

People can discuss and debate whether sexual freedom is in itself a positive goal and whether oral contraceptives can be a healthy choice. (I say: Yes and Yes!) But whether or not any individual woman chooses to avail herself of these options, the fact remains they are options. If women have independent access to birth control, they can make these choices for themselves, just as men always have.

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In 2005, on the 40th anniversary of Griswold, Shira Saperstein of the Center for American Progress wrote:

On June 7, 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court announced a critical, life-changing legal victory for women in the United States. In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court ruled that married women have a constitutional right to privacy that allows them to obtain contraception. Ironically, forty years later, women are still fighting to exercise that right: in courtrooms, legislatures, and even pharmacies, obstacles to reproductive freedom continue to this day.

Mrs. Estelle Griswold, executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, fought long and hard against Connecticut's outmoded laws banning the sale or use of birth control. The Connecticut ban, enacted in 1879 under the sponsorship of Connecticut state legislator P.T. Barnum of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, had withstood years of legislative and legal challenges. Finally, in November 1961, Mrs. Griswold and her colleagues challenged the ban directly, opening a clinic in New Haven that offered family planning counseling and services. For this act of civil disobedience, Griswold and her colleague, Dr. Lee Buxton, a Yale obstetrician, were arrested, convicted and fined $100 each. Four years later, their appeal led to the Supreme Court victory that for the first time recognized a constitutional right to privacy in matters of marital intimacy and reproduction.

Griswold led the way for a string of other decisions in which the right to contraception was extended to unmarried women (Eisenstadt v. Baird, 1972) and to minors (Carey v. Population Services International, 1977), from contraception to abortion (Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, 1973), and from reproductive rights to sexual rights (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), where Justice Kennedy wrote of "an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex."

These decisions – and others that rely on and expand them – have been fundamental to advancing human rights in the United States. For only with the freedom to decide whether, when, and with whom to have sex, and whether, when and with whom to have children, can other human rights – economic, social, cultural, and political – be fully realized.

However, in celebrating the Griswold decision this month, we must acknowledge that this victory was always incomplete and is now at great risk.

Saperstein goes on to detail a few of the many ways reproductive freedom has been diminished or destroyed for women in the US, especially low-income women.

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Fortunately, most people understand that birth control is a necessary and important part of life. The good thing about Protest The Pill Day is that it will help more people see the anti-choicers for what they really are.

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