Human rights include many different liberties; one of the most significant freedoms is the right to form intimate relationships as well as having the ability to choose whether and when to have children (Reproductive Freedom.) Accompanying such freedoms is the chance to create a safe and productive life that is worthwhile; often the pursuit of this goal requires government intervention to provide support and respect to allow people equal access to these rights. Reproductive freedom involves access to safe and affordable contraception, advocating for age appropriate sex education programs, and working to prevent discrimination based on pregnancy. This paper will examine the issues of contraception and abortion rights, which have dominated reproductive freedoms in the United States for decades.
The issue of contraception in the US appeared to have been settled in 1965, when the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold vs.Connecticut that laws in that state which forbade using contraceptives were unconstitutional, both because of the due process clause as well as the right to privacy (Kirkland.) In Connecticut, in 1879 a law had been passed entitled “An Act to Amend an Act Discerning Offenses against Decency, Morality, and Humanity” which certainly carried moral overtones and banned contraceptives (Slachetsky.) Because of this prohibition, the Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, Estelle Griswold, gave birth control to a married couple and was then arrested for doing so. Ultimately, the case ended up in the Supreme Court.
When the Griswold case was decided, the Warren court consisted of mainly liberal justices, which is not the case for the current Supreme Court. In fact, one of the most conservative judges, Justice Scalia, has referred to that decision as “totally absurd” (Kirkland.) The Griswold decision essentially stated that Connecticut could not prevent a couple from using contraceptives because it was in violation of marital privacy; however, because this right is not specifically mentioned in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, opponents of contraceptive freedom have seized on that discrepancy to argue that there is no right to privacy at all.
However, supporters of the right to contraception argue that this decision applies not only to married adults but also to people who are unmarried, including adolescents. Regardless of this position, the fact is that clearly the need for contraception in the United States has not been met; this is illustrated by the fact that at least 50% of the 6 million pregnancies in the United States annually are unintended (Contraceptive Access the United States.) In addition, approximately 33% of pregnancies in this country are experienced by women under the age of 20, and most of these pregnancies occur unintentionally. Unequal access to contraception is demonstrated by the rates of unplanned pregnancies which are much higher for women who are poor and women of color.
Another source of controversy regarding contraception has arisen because of the availability of the Plan B emergency contraception pill, also called the “morning-after” pill. This method of contraception is used when a female has unprotected sex or a birth control failure and takes the pill within 72 hours; the medication is designed to prevent pregnancy from occurring. In April, 2013, the FDA approved the use of Plan B without a prescription for women 15 years of age and older (Landau.) Several weeks prior to that decision, another federal judge had ordered the FDA to provide the pill to women of any age without a prescription. A great deal of opposition to both decisions has arisen, and the Obama administration has opposed the recent court decision as well. Although opponents of the medicine consider it to be an abortifacient, in fact there is no pregnancy to terminate when this pill is used.
The opponents of abortion have also objected to the availability of RU-486, also known as the “abortion pill.” This medication originated in France in 1988, and for nearly a dozen years abortion opponents struggled to prevent women in the United States to have access to it. Ultimately, the pill was approved in September, 2000, and since then almost 1.4 million American women have made use of it (Associated Press.) RU-486 allows women seeking abortions more privacy as well as reducing the need for surgical abortions. It can be used only for early pregnancies, and comprises approximately 15% of all the abortions in the United States. The manufacture of RU-486 claims that it is 95% effective in terminating pregnancies, and in the remaining 5% of cases surgical abortions are required to complete the procedure or to stop heavy bleeding (Associated Press.)
Despite the fact that the Supreme Court upheld the right of women in America to have legal abortions, there continue to be many efforts to ban the procedure again using violent tactics as well as passing laws to achieve that end. In particular, during the 2012 election cycle abortion was still used as a “wedge” issue to attempt to divide different regions of the country. That, coupled with many statements and actions made by Republicans which threatened reproductive freedoms, undoubtedly contributed to the victory of President Obama. In a Gallup poll taken shortly after the election, women in 12 key swing states who were asked “What do you consider the most important issue for women in this election?” placed abortion at the top of the list, a number that was nearly double the rate they cited their next most important issue: jobs. (Shalhoup.) It appears that as long as reproductive freedoms are in jeopardy, both men and women are willing to engage in significant activism on all sides of the issues.
- “Contraceptive Access in the United States.” 5 March 2009. Center for Reproductive Rights. Web. 5 June 2013. http://reproductiverights.org/en/project/contraceptive-access-in-the-united-states
- Kirkland, Michael. “Is There a Constitutional Right to Contraception?” 11 March 2012. UPI. Web. 5 June 2013. http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2012/03/11/Under-the-US-Supreme-Court-Is-there-a-constitutional-right-to-contraception/UPI-90031331451000/
- Landau, Elizabeth. “FDA Approves Morning-after Pill without Prescription for Girls 15 and Older.” 30 April 2013. CNN. Web. 5 June 2013. http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/30/health/morning-after-pill
- “Reproductive Freedom.” n.d. ACLU. Web. 4 June 2013. http://www.aclu.org/reproductive-freedom
Shalhoup, Mark. “Abortion Was the Most Important Intellectual Issue for Women, But Not Really.” 6 November 2012. The Chicago Reader. Web. 6 June 2013. http://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2012/11/06/abortion-was-the-most-important-election-issue-for-women-but-not-really
- Slachetka, Michele. Getting to Plan B: A History of Contraceptive Rights in the United States and an Argument for a Private Right of Action against the FDA. 2008. Web. 6 June 2013. http://law.wm.edu/academics/intellectuallife/researchcenters/ibrl/documents/16WMBORJStudentNoteSlachetka.pdf
- The Associated Press. “10 Years after the RU-486 Abortion Pill Approved by FDA, New Controversies Loom.” 27 September 2010. The New York Daily News. Web. 6 June 2013. http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/health/ten-years-ru-486-abortion-pill-approved-fda-new-controversies-loom-article-1.441383