Is free contraceptives policy a workplace necessity?

By Kathryn Hickok,
Cascade Policy Institute

Common sense should intuit that suppressing the healthy operations of a normal human body is not “preventive” medicine. One might also think it could be an offensive political point to call doing so requisite for women’s workplace advancement. However, the Department of Health and Human Services and President Obama think otherwise. Many women disagree with them.

The Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive services mandate requires all insurers to provide as “preventive care,” and without cost to the user, every FDA-approved method of female birth control, potentially abortifacient “morning-after” drugs, and surgical sterilization. In keeping with contraception’s new status as “preventive care,” President Obama recast it as a women’s workplace equity issue during the October 16 presidential debate. He further concluded that not having to pay the bills for their personal choices is an important economic issue for American women:

“Now, there are some other issues that have a bearing on how women succeed in the workplace. For example, their health care….In my health care bill, I said insurance companies need to provide contraceptive coverage to everybody who is insured. Because this is not just a—a health issue, it’s an economic issue for women. It makes a difference. This is money out of that family’s pocket….

“That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country.”

“Preventive care” guards against diseases or disorders. In contrast, contraception, sterilization, and abortion suppress the normal functioning of a healthy reproductive system or end a pregnancy already begun. Therefore, these services are not preventive care―unless women’s fertility is considered a disorder, and pregnancy a disease. This is a medically inaccurate and denigrating way to think about women and babies.

Does it not offend women that government policymakers believe that contraception is considered matter-of-course for achieving career success today and so, by big-government logic, it must be provided to them for free? Fertility and motherhood shouldn’t be considered incompatible with women’s success. Women need workplace policies that accommodate their nature, as opposed to requiring them to imitate men’s. Suggesting otherwise means policymakers think women can’t be women and live a successful 21st century life.

Women are diverse, and no one can speak for all women. However, free birth control is most likely not the fundamental “pocketbook issue” facing American women and their families. Many other things, however, could be. To succeed in the workplace and to care for their families, women need the freedom to make responsible choices in every aspect of life.

For both women and men to succeed in life and to support their families, government should facilitate an economic and cultural climate in which people can start and expand businesses, try new ideas, find solutions to problems, and keep more of their own hard-earned money. Government should reduce burdensome regulations, lower taxes and fees, refrain from wasting taxpayer funds, and reform entitlement programs that discourage responsibility and encourage multigenerational government dependence. Those are pocketbook issues for American women.

Access to affordable quality education is another. In the new movie Won’t Back Down, Jamie (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a low-income mother, wants to stop her daughter from failing in school. In a key scene, she states with determination, “Have you heard about those mothers that lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They’re nothing compared to me.” Women want to send their children to the schools they, not the government, believe are best for them. They want schools to expect excellence, to reinforce their values, and to prepare kids to lead lives of integrity and generosity.

Stable families are the ultimate women’s economic issue. A widely cited Brookings Institution study demonstrates that those who graduate from high school, get a job, and marry before having children almost never live in poverty (98%). Brookings’ Ron Haskins recently testified before Congress, “In 2009, the poverty rate for children in married-couple families was 11.0 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for children in female-headed families was 44.3 percent. The difference between these two poverty rates is a specter haunting American social policy….” Government cannot replace the family as the basic unit of a healthy, upwardly mobile society. A welfare check is a Band-Aid, not a substitute for proactive and responsible decision-making between a woman and a man, marriage, and breadwinning parents in the home. Ever-expanding government programs have not produced the “Great Society,” and free “morning-after” pills don’t mend broken hearts or unhealthy relationships.

Women want their daughters to aspire to life-long love and commitment, to nurture high expectations for themselves and their boyfriends, and to create a good environment into which to bring their children. Some also would prefer to spend less time in the paid workforce and more at home with their children. Breathless political rhetoric about a new contraception entitlement is out of touch with women who eagerly hope that soon they and their husbands can afford to have a baby. Higher take-home pay, rather than free birth control, empowers individual women to bring about their unique personal dreams.

Women’s aspirations and concerns are not for themselves alone but for all those they love―spouses, children, parents, friends―who need economic and educational opportunities today. Public figures should stop reinforcing the insulting (and false) narrative that women’s economic and social advancement depend on free contraception. They also might reflect on that ancient truth about government promises of which the poet Samuel Johnson hauntingly wrote: “How small, of all that human hearts endure, / That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!”

 Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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