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BACKTALK | summer 2006


The Wrong Prescription
Fending off the latest attacks on women’s reproductive health

Forty-one years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court laid the groundwork for widespread access to birth control in the Griswold v. Connecticut case. Allowing women to plan and control their fertility didn’t just improve maternal and infant health in our nation; it helped increase educational and professional opportunities for American women. It has also led to a welcome decline in teen motherhood: According to the National Campaign To Prevent Teen Pregnancy, the teen-mother birthrate has declined 33 percent just since 1991.

Now, a small-but-vocal cadre of social conservatives wants to turn back the clock, advocating that access to contraception again be limited. Their latest tactic: pressuring local pharmacies to stop filling birth-control prescriptions.

The campaign is orchestrated by groups such as Pharmacists for Life (www.pfli.org) and Family Research Council (www.frc.org), who argue that easy access to contraception has contributed to moral decline. The truth is, these groups are adamantly opposed to a woman’s right to choose, and are finding new ways to chip away at Roe v. Wade.

The extremist social conservatives don’t seem to want men practicing birth control any more than women. In Washington, D.C., for example, an informal survey by The Washington Post found that almost half of the district’s 50 CVS pharmacies lock up their condoms, as do several other well-known chains with pharmacies. The local chapter of Planned Parenthood has gone on alert, urging D.C. residents to use the “power of the purse” to force CVS to unlock their condoms and put them back on the shelves.

Barriers to birth-control access have allowed the United States to fall dangerously behind in curbing unintended pregnancies. Of the 6.4 million pregnancies each year in this country, one-half are unintended—and nearly half of those end in abortion. A logical solution to lowering the abortion rate would be to eliminate barriers that prevent women from having access to affordable, safe and effective contraception—but that seems contrary to the tack birth-control opponents have taken.

“Expanding access to contraception is the best way to prevent unintended pregnancies,” insists Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “Women should never have to worry about being denied contraception, which is basic health care...”

Opposition to abortion doesn’t have to mean opposition to birth control. Take Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): While staunchly opposed to abortion, he has nonetheless championed policies that would prevent unintended pregnancies. Recently, Reid teamed with Sens. Hillary R. Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and others to sponsor the Prevention First Act (S. 20). It would secure funding to ensure broad access to birth control, supply information to providers and consumers concerning emergency contraception, and require hospitals that receive federal funds to provide, upon request, emergency contraception to sexual-assault victims.

Of course, the Bush administration has been no friend to family-planning efforts. Since coming to office in 2001, Bush and his allies have managed to stonewall approval for emergency contraception and substantially cut funding for both international and domestic family-planning initiatives— while greatly increasing funding for abstinence-only programs. Abstinence training not only hasn’t fulfilled the rosy expectations of social conservatives, but can have negative health consequences: A recent Columbia University study found that 88 percent of teenage girls who took “virginity pledges” eventually have premarital sex and are one-third less likely to use contraception when they do, making them vulnerable not only to unintended pregnancies but to sexually transmitted diseases.

Our right to birth control is in particular jeopardy at the level of state law. Four states—Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota—have passed legislation to allow pharmacists to refuse dispensing emergency contraception. Another four—Colorado, Florida, Maine and Tennessee—maintain broad “refusal clauses” that give some health-care professionals leeway in refusing to fill emergency contraception and other birth-control prescriptions.

Like other fights for reproductive rights, this new battle is what my mother, Jean, once called “all hands on deck.” All of us need to speak out about those who would chip away at our rights, and help educate our friends and community about the threat that looms as close as the neighborhood drugstore. For more information, see www.birthcontrolwatch.org or www.covermypills.org.

Donna Brazile is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is also the author of Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).