On International Women’s Day, people around the world should ask: “How do we involve, educate and inspire girls globally?” We believe that access to contraception and comprehensive sex education are two non-negotiable pieces of this formula.
We have progressed far during the last 50 years. In the U.S., contraceptives like the pill have become commonplace, drastically reducing the teen pregnancy rate, and allowing countless women to become mothers only when they are ready, or not at all. U.S. leadership in international family planning assistance has allowed couples as far away as rural Ethiopia to access contraception. And maternal deaths, while still too high, are declining worldwide.
But the last year has shown how far we haven’t come, and how far we may fall back. There have been near-constant attacks on women’s basic rights, freedoms and respect. The right wing attacked women’s health clinic funding in Congress. Virginia nearly passed a law to require an intravaginal probe for any women seeking abortion. A Wisconsin Republican state Senator proposed legislation that classifies single parents, who are 80 percent women, as child abusers. Most recently in Washington, D.C., conservatives have waged a war against contraception coverage, with an all-male panel as their advisors. Their outside grassroots support came from Rush Limbaugh who dared call the woman who wanted to testify on behalf of contraception a “slut”, among other things. When challenged, he said she should put sexual videos of herself on youtube if she wanted contraception.
Before the onslaught of the last few months, the lay audience among us (e.g. my Catholic mom in San Antonio or your cousin in Omaha) might have distanced themselves from the debate “because it was all about abortion”.
There are many who are mobilized by the critical and “single-issue” fight that abortion rights represents. There are as many others, if not more, who hesitate to be more visible on the abortion rights battlefront. It is these people who have been changed — dare I say, transformed — by the recent series of fracases.
They have been transformed because the opposition, from conservative lawmakers to tea party pundits to religious hierarchy, has finally uncloaked their true agenda, and it is as I always suspected: A deep-seated misogyny, and fear of women’s advancement and progress.
How else can you explain frontal assaults on everything from cancer screenings to birth control, insurance coverage to OTC status for tested drugs. How else can you explain the shocking level of disrespect?
“Is that all you’ve got? Good old-fashioned misogyny and fear?” you say. And the answer is yes, sadly yes, that’s all we’ve got. And a lot of it.
When you stop to consider how paralyzing fear can be, particularly fear of upsetting the balance of power, you can start to have some understanding of the irrational lunacy of recent attacks.
You also see a road stretch out in front of us, from this International Women’s Day forward, with opportunities then challenges, then more challenges and opportunities.
We have a lot on our side, namely the truth. The truth that empowered women can transform a society. The truth that when women control their bodies, they choose to have fewer children or space their pregnancies— so they can nurture each child better. And thankfully, the truth that the vast majority of Americans are actually on our side.
The trick is in getting our wisdom, which is now considered unconventional, to be considered not just conventional, but automatic. Like buckling your seat belt or recycling cans and bottles.
Take for example some of the footage in this interview— of women who walk miles just to find clean water, or struggle to produce enough from the land to feed their children. Their lives are getting harder. Birth control makes at least one part a little simpler. They get the issue automatically. Why don’t we all?
On this International Women’s Day, join me in resisting the platitudes and shallow calls to action.
Instead, bird-dog birth control with me.
When someone talks about a woman’s economic empowerment and making her a productive part of her society, ask this person who’s providing her birth control.
When you hear about education efforts and keeping girls in school, ask them where birth control fits into their master plan for school fees and parental support.
And when you hear of climate change, or water and food security, and the focus seems to be either on global-level negotiations or technological fixes at the field level, ask if birth control is in the mix.
Time has proven that little else makes a woman as resilient, less vulnerable and mightier in the face of adversity—be they political attacks or environmental changes —than control over her reproductive destiny.
Now that’s conventional wisdom I can get behind.