Restrictions on Contraception Could Set Women Back Generations

Claudia Goldin, a professor of economics at Harvard and the author of “Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey Toward Equity,” was a college student at Cornell University from 1963 until 1967. Back then, in the days before readily accessible birth-control pills and legal abortions, family-planning services weren’t offered to women who weren’t married. At Cornell, if female students wanted to get birth control of any kind, they had to go to college health services and pretend they were engaged or already married. While doing research on the issue years after she graduated, Goldin learned of women who put rings on their fingers to trick the medical staff; sometimes they would have to do this multiple times, whenever a prescription ran out. They also took other precautions. “In order to have a normal social and sex life as an eighteen-, nineteen-, twenty-year-old in college, or even outside college, you wanted to insure yourself,” Goldin told me. “So, you purchased, essentially, an insurance policy.”

The insurance policy was finding a steady boyfriend and binding yourself tightly to him, like Lois Lane clinging to Superman’s side, ideally becoming engaged to be married as soon as possible. That way, if you accidentally became pregnant, everyone would know who the father was, and the expectation would be that he would marry you. This strategy came with many trade-offs, one of the biggest being that you were locking in a life of early domesticity and childbearing. “Once you do that, even if you don’t get pregnant, you’ve changed the game,” Goldin said. “You’ve changed your mind-set. You’re getting married. Your parents are very pleased. You’re getting your teaching certificate. You’re going to have a kid pretty soon.” Other possible versions of your future quickly faded away.

When the current Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization last week, overturning Roe v. Wade and eliminating the constitutional right to abortion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a concurring opinion that sent chills through almost anyone who takes the personal freedoms of modern life for granted. He wrote that the Court “should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” the decisions that legalized access to contraception, the right to engage in private acts of intimacy with same-sex partners, and the right to marry whomever one chooses. All three of these cases were decided using similar logic to Roe, which was based on the idea of a fundamental right to privacy rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which establishes due-process rights and equal protection under the law for all citizens. The impact of the Roe v. Wade reversal on the economic prospects of women—especially low-income women—will be significant. If the Court were to restrict access to contraception as well, the results could be financially devastating, potentially leading to a drastic reimagining of women’s role in our economy and society at large.

The concept of providing support for working parents through paid family leave and affordable child care is already controversial. “We don’t support families. We don’t support people who are bearing children,” Khiara M. Bridges, a professor of law at the U.C. Berkeley School of Law, told me. Restricting access to contraception would “exacerbate inequality that already exists. The wealthy will be able to control the timing and spacing of their children, and those who are poor and working class will not. It’s folks who are unprivileged who will be forced to resort to unsafe methods of avoiding pregnancy or terminating pregnancy. Or be forced into a state of constant childbearing.”

Access to contraception was established by rulings in two Supreme Court cases, Griswold v. Connecticut, in 1965, which found that states could not restrict access to birth control for married couples, and Eisenstadt v. Baird, in 1972, which extended that same right to unmarried people. The contraceptive choices available then were somewhat different from what’s available now, but they gave women greater control over when they became pregnant and with whom, and that change had undeniable economic benefits. In the first major study of how the dissemination of the birth-control pill affected young, single women in college, Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, also an economics professor at Harvard, found that the education and career choices of women changed dramatically, and the average age of marriage jumped up, after the pill became widely available. In 1970, for example, women comprised ten per cent of first-year law-school students; in 1980, they made up thirty-six per cent. And almost fifty per cent of college-graduate women born in 1950 got married before age twenty-three; fewer than thirty per cent of women born in 1957, who would have reached adulthood several years after the Eisenstadt v. Baird decision, were married by age twenty-three. All of these factors contributed to greater earning power and financial resources for the women involved. A later study credited the pill with helping to narrow the gap in pay between men and women, decreasing it by ten per cent in the nineteen-eighties, and then an additional thirty-one per cent in the nineties.

Several states are already restricting access to certain forms of contraception, and politicians have lobbied against emergency contraception, such as Plan B, as well as certain forms of intrauterine devices (IUDs). Emergency contraception, which is sometimes called the morning-after pill, is intended to prevent pregnancy by delaying or preventing ovulation; however, Plan B’s label states that it could potentially prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the lining of the uterus. (This is believed by the medical field to be unlikely to happen). The C.D.C. estimates that 24.3 per cent of women aged twenty-two to forty-nine who have had sexual intercourse have used emergency contraception, and the percentage increases higher up the education scale. Similarly, an IUD prevents an egg from being fertilized, but certain types in certain circumstances could also, potentially, prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. Certain abortion opponents argue that life begins the moment an egg is fertilized, and that any birth-control method that prevents implantation is an abortifacient, effectively causing an abortion. Many things need to occur, however, for a fertilized egg to successfully achieve implantation and begin to grow into a baby. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists defines implantation as the beginning of a pregnancy.

The extremist tendencies of the majority on the Supreme Court have led it to reject scientific reasoning, and help explain the strange disconnect between many of the Court’s decisions and the views of the majority of Americans. “This is a Court that has increasingly been willing to allow the opponents of abortion to substitute their own beliefs, even if they are religious or have no basis in scientific empirical fact, as facts. They’re not seeing it as a science question. That gets you into a problem,” Wendy Parmet, the co-director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University, told me. “I don’t think whatever gains women have made in the workplace and in political representation are guaranteed. If the Court moved us back to the nineteen-fifties in terms of access to contraception and abortion, well then, I think we would have some of the same social and economic consequences we had then.” ♦

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