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Why birth control will always be political

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To use an old formula, the phrase "birth control" contains two words. One is "birth," which I think I can assume is pretty popular, generally speaking. The other is "control," which is where the problem is.

Women have a power over men that is universal and perennial: we have their babies. The problem with birth control is the power women have to refuse to bear the baby of a man in a given situation. That power waxes and wanes, whether the times are primitive or sophisticated. In the days of hunter-gatherers, few men suspected that women had their special herbs for birth control: brew a cup of this tea every morning, drink it and you will not conceive. Brew and drink this tea and your pregnancy will go away.

Since a pregnant woman is an outward sign of the masculinity of the father--whether or not he wants to assume responsibility after the baby is born--women tend to please men when they conceived babies, and please them when they bore sons. As short-sighted as this is, it remains that this power to give a man his offspring was and is in the realm of women's power. Thus her worst threat, her most profound rejection of a man, is to refuse to give him offspring.

We think of ourselves as living in the most sophisticated historical era of all time, but at present we are burdened with men, mostly older white men, whose sexuality is waning but they still hold political power. These men, something like tribal elders of bygone civilizations, still seek to rule women's reproduction so that women will not refuse to conceive, an action that could wipe out the tribe. They also want their women to conceive and bear male children because male children offer fathers a way to trace their lineage. In case you are wondering why I am on this track, I assure you that our world is just this primitive, and in many places where you wouldn't think to encounter it.

A commentator, George Gilder, wrote years ago that women have to entice men to create and support families, because the alternative is the predatory male who seduces and abandons. The problem can be complicated, as it is now, by forces that encourage women as well as men to be sexual exploiters and skip motherhood.

In Asia the combination of birth control and technology has enabled couples to plan their families by the simple method of aborting pregnancies if the baby is female, allowing sons in their family to satisfy the primitive masculinity of the culture. Years of this practice have resulted in a shortage of marriageable young women, with which India and China are going to have to contend for years to come.

In America, medical technology allows women to control their reproduction and enter the work force instead of rearing children. Even women in their homes can use the Internet to bring income into their lives. Declining social constraints against single parents help these small families to exist, despite sensationalistic publicity about the Octomom (who is a good illustration of the uses of medical technology in reproduction) and the Gosselins (who are now divorced).

Religious pressure forces women to bear against their better judgment, resulting in unhappy marriages. The reaction of the male hierarchy against this is usually to double down and insist that if the restless women were more dedicated homemakers, they would be happy. And now we have prominent men speaking out of their role as preachers who scold women for seeking birth control from the government, or "Uncle Sugar," as Preacher Mike Huckabee put it this past week. Huckabee, who does not seem to know what birth control is, believes that bureaucrats hand out prescriptions without the benefit of medical supervision. He does not understand why there has been a loud chorus of sarcastic laughter at his comments, because he doesn't know how birth control works or where it comes from. Nor does he need to, in the religious context in which he practices his mixture of faith and politics. Parenthetically, I think we can take it as a maxim that any preacher who wants to be President is, ipso facto, disqualified and should never be anywhere near that kind of executive power.

But it is truly horrifying to some men that it might be possible for a woman to say, "No. I will not have your baby." This is some men's worst nightmare, as in when we look at history when kings have done anything in their power to obtain a male heir. The ordinary fellow that springs to mind in our discussions might not want his girlfriend to get pregnant, but a few years later with another partner he might just want a baby more than anything. And still the women have the power to say, "I don't want to have a baby right now."

Men have been notoriously unwilling to impede their sexual self-expression with forethought, and the odious phrase, "They aren't my children, they are my wife's children," is well used in communities other than Guam, where I first heard it. Conversely, women are always subject to pressure that tells them not to refuse the urge of a man who finds them attractive. The male half of society also does not like to deal with women who "play hard to get," as though saying no were a game that women play, not a message that she does not want a certain man's attention.

And although most people are opposed to abortion, or at least to abortion as a type of retroactive birth control, the debate over abortion has taken a recent turn in America that I have not seen before. Opposition to abortion in the Religious Right is now being conflated with birth control. The right-wing hype is trying to put across the idea that whether a woman becomes pregnant is not up to her. They would prefer that it is up to the man, another iteration of the idea of pregnancy as penalty: we had sex so now you have to take the consequences. But even now, women are still able to say No to men, if not about sex then still about conception.

The situation, then, is not really about birth; it is really about control. One way for women to be confined to their homes is for them to be pregnant; take away birth control and there will be many pregnant women indeed. Not all of them will be happy about it; abolishing both birth control and abortion would set American society back generations, and might well result in a wave of anger and resentment. That in turn could produce politicians trying to hold back the protests with more and more stringent legislation and punishments; the ultimate result could be the abandonment of certain states by women and/or families. It could also precipitate a real rebellion against men, going all the way back to the Greek tragedy in which women organize a sexual boycott to give the men an ultimatum for change. In America's present climate of intellectual freedom, that could very well happen.

I have advised families with school-age children to abandon Texas, because it is only a matter of time before their school system loses its accreditation and the diplomas "earned" in Texas become worthless. But women of childbearing age must also consider their physical welfare if they continue to live in a state where the political "war on women" is raging. Kansas, for example, with its murder movement aimed at providers of women's health care, is not a good place for a young woman to live, period.

A state or corporation that allows pharmacists to refuse prescriptions for birth control because of their religious beliefs ought not to be the first choice of a family that needs the full spectrum of health care, from vaccines to prescriptions. I believe that some of the more ostentatiously pious (as opposed to truly religious) organizations, hospitals and denominations will force their employees to look elsewhere for employment because of their intrusive policies--and as our economy picks up in spite of Republican efforts to crush it (and us), it will become easier to change jobs and keep your portable Obamacare health insurance.

Every governor who stands up and announces with misguided pride that s/he is going to end abortion in the entire state should be prepared for a shrinking population as life in America becomes mobile again, either because jobs are out there or because Americans have nothing to lose by moving--in fact, they may have much to gain by moving to a state where health care is freely available. And it is no coincidence that the more humane policies in progressive states coincide with efforts by their governors to revive the economy for their citizens, as opposed to throwing them under the Republican bus. American women have not been presented with this set of alternatives in my lifetime. But if I had to choose, I would choose to go where good health care is, because I have been literally brought back from the dead by good doctors, nurses and technology.

It isn't as though we have to be afraid to look elsewhere; America's standards for health care no longer lead the world. People are making trips to various countries for medical treatment at lower cost, or because their procedure is hard to find. If America's system was once the best, relentless resistance to women's health care is destroying it for half the population. When a member of the House of Representatives lies to the public about the HPV vaccine because of her misguided piety, it's time for women to put aside the "birth" and pay attention to the "control" before this coming election.

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