Citizenship and the Right to Birth Control

Citizenship and the Right to Birth Control

Calling this year’s political fight about funding for contraception a “war on women” may be a catchy slogan and a strong mobilizing call. But as an analysis, it is misleading. True, birth control does affect women disproportionately, because women still take primary responsibility for raising children. But everyone needs access to birth control. It is, first, a matter of public health, in that unsafe and irresponsible sex affects us all.

More fundamentally, it is a requirement of modern citizenship. I mean by citizenship not a set of documents but the power to participate in democracy, to defend and expand it. For that reason, progressives need to make the defense of contraception and abortion funding a core part of our agenda, not—as it has usually been treated by the Left—as a separate women’s issue.

Consider what’s wrong with this picture: on February 26, 2011, there were two demonstrations in New York City, carefully organized so as to be near each other—one in City Hall Park, the other in Foley Square—and to fit together, one at 11 a.m. and the other at 1 p.m. The first was called by unions and other progressive organizations to support the struggle against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attack on the collective bargaining rights of public unions; the second supported Planned Parenthood against the Republican-controlled House’s effort to defund it. At the second rally, many speakers condemned tax breaks for the rich, the elimination of social and public services, the closing of public schools, and what union-busting means for the lives of working people. At the first, although many of the union participants were Hispanic and black women, I did not hear one speaker mention the attacks on Planned Parenthood.

Yet protecting birth control is no less important than the fight for unions, the environment, jobs, and a fair tax structure. Birth control is everyone’s right, and we all need to come to its defense. The campaign against it is part of the overall right-wing agenda of redistributing wealth and political power upward to the corporate sector. Prosperous people will continue to have access to birth control and abortion; what’s at issue is access for those less fortunate. This is true not only for heterosexuals who want to become parents even as they work, relax, and act as citizens. Because birth control is about separating sex from reproduction and accepting sexuality as an honorable and delightful aspect of humanity, it is relevant to homosexuals, too. We might call it part of a right to sexual citizenship.

Considering today’s controversy, some might be surprised to learn that the United States has had the strongest women’s rights movements in the world. In the mid-nineteenth century, women throughout the world envied the relative freedom of American women to participate in education, public life, and work. Paradoxically, the birth-control controversy is a reflection o...

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