Merriam-Webster defines "health" as:
1. the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit.
2. a condition in which someone or something is thriving or doing well.
The author of a recent Prince column would presumably take issue with Merriam-Webster. According to Thomas Clark, birth control should not be considered healthcare because it “suppresses the natural function of the reproductive system” or “counteract(s) normal bodily operation” — to be contrasted with other therapies “that treat illnesses or disorders and seek to return the body to health.”
This pronouncement smacks of antiquated sexist justifications for preventing a woman from controlling her body. But putting that to the side for a moment, let’s first address the author on his own terms. Suppose we adopt the definition of healthcare the author posits. Let’s explore the other medications that would fall outside of that domain: pain medications, fever reducers, antihistamines, and other allergy medications “suppress” the body’s normal operating immune reaction. Vitamins may augment certain bodily functioning, interfering with “normal bodily operation.” Indeed, we may need to chuck out all preventative measures altogether. Vaccinations could be said to counteract the normal bodily operation of contracting illness and reacting appropriately. Especially live, attenuated vaccines (like the Sabin strains for polio) which in fact infect an otherwise “healthy” body — by the author’s standard, these don’t seem to constitute “healthcare.”
Birth control preserves the state of being of a woman’s body. Just as one might get a vaccine or take a vitamin, birth control prevents a large change in the body’s current homeostasis (from not pregnant to pregnant), which may be inimical to a woman’s overall health. As we have with other preventive medical interventions, we as a society have recognized the health-related value of introducing a small “change” to the system—such as a vaccine, a vitamin, or birth control—in order to prevent a larger, potentially more harmful change. But Clark’s framework for healthcare requires that we discard preventive care entirely. Like becoming pregnant, contracting the flu or experiencing bone loss with age could, too, be said to be “natural” occurrences—with which, by the author’s logic, we are prohibited from interfering and labeling a facet of healthcare.
The author’s professed argument, therefore, does not justify his singling out of birth control. The final few paragraphs of the piece, in which Clark derides the concept of disentangling reproduction from sexual activity, perhaps give us more insight into the motivations really at play in his argument.
The fact of the matter is that birth control is absolutely crucial to the preservation of a woman’s health. Clark’s characterization of birth control’s medical importance is frankly condescending—as if the desire to prevent pregnancy is merely a product of whimsy on a woman’s part. In framing birth control as simply interfering with a natural body process—a net-negative on the body, he trivializes the many and varied health-related consequences of an unintended pregnancy for a woman. In the first place, pregnancy carries a number of serious medical risks, which are often exacerbated for women who may experience any of a number of preexisting conditions or predispositions. But beyond this, Clark most glaringly ignores the fact that health care, and health itself, is comprehensive. A woman who does not wish or is unprepared (emotionally, financially, etc.) to become a mother faces grave mental health risks associated with an unintended pregnancy. A woman who is unable to control her own reproductive future is more likely to face a whole host of economic and social challenges later in life.
When we don’t cover birth control, it creates a stratification in access by which women of higher socioeconomic status can obtain contraception and women of lower socioeconomic status cannot. Stratification in access to contraception simply means stratification in experience of unintended pregnancy and the innumerable consequences thereof. The unintended pregnancy rate among women living below the federal poverty line is two to three times the national average. When the government denies access, it makes a value judgment about who is permitted to determine and to control her own reproductive health.
Birth control is vital healthcare. Far from “counteracting normal bodily operation,” a reductive and condescending characterization, it preserves a woman’s current state of being, protecting her against the many physical and mental health risks of an unintended pregnancy. This is an argument I thought we had settled long ago; indeed, as the American Medical Association House of Delegates stated in 1964, “An intelligent recognition of the problems that relate to human reproduction, including the need for population control, is more than a matter of responsible parenthood; it is a matter of responsible medical practice.” Birth control is crucial to the maintenance of a woman’s overall health, and has accordingly long been recognized as vital healthcare. And despite the author’s best efforts, specious, tautological arguments can never disguise the misogyny underneath.
Jessica Quinter is a senior in the Wilson School from Columbia, Md. and the president of Princeton Students for Reproductive Justice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.