Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Fifty Years and a Long Way to Go

Next month marks the 50th birthday of the birth control pill in the United States, prompting a TIME Magazine cover story, various histories of contraception, and the looming question: why, after half a century, are almost half of all pregnancies in the U.S. still unplanned?

Of the 3.1 million unintended pregnancies per year, almost half (48%) involve contraceptive failures. In 52% of the cases, couples used no birth control at all. As Melinda Beck of the Wall Street Journal points out, to begin to answer this question, we must untangle a complex web of cultural, religious, behavioral, educational and economic factors.

Contraception still presents a financial barrier for many people, complicated by culture and religion. Though most insurers now cover contraceptives, co-pays and deductibles can still present obstacles, and as was drilled into our heads earlier this year, before the reform bill, over 49 million Americans were uninsured.

Yet more importantly, Beck points to the behavioral tendencies which have failed to stop unplanned pregnancies:
And many young people are in "the fog zone" in which their beliefs about pregnancy don't match their behaviors, according to a 2009 report by the National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In a survey conducted by the Guttmacher Institute of 1,800 single men and women aged 18 to 29, more than 80% of both sexes said it was important to them to avoid pregnancy right now, yet 43% of those who are sexually active said they used no contraception or used it inconsistently.

This is where we come in.

Though we've gone a long way in the 50 years since the pill's FDA approval, it's clear that the need for education, support, and resources is still immense.

There is no doubt that sex education works and yet CT is one of only a few states that does not require a graduation requirement of one credit in health education. According to the Guttmacher Institute:
Connecticut has the 33rd highest teenage pregnancy rate of any state.
432,000 women are in need of contraceptive services and supplies. Of these, 165,960 women need publicly supported contraceptive services because they have incomes below 250% of the federal poverty level (106,520) or are sexually active teenagers (59,440).
Publicly funded family planning clinics in Connecticut help women prevent 16,400 unintended pregnancies each year.

So why, in a world of countless pills, the ring, the patch, implants, and condoms for women and men, do women still get pregnant unintentionally? Because without the availability of comprehensive services, adequate public funding, or supportive laws and policies, a victory fifty years ago can only take us so far.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Young People & Choice

In this week's edition of Newsweek, NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan was quoted in an article entitled, "Remember Roe! How Can the Next Generation Defend Abortion Rights When They Don't Think Abortion Rights Need Defending". Unfortunately, Ms. Keenan's comments hit a nerve with many young pro-choice activists who often feel discouraged and ignored by more seasoned feminists in this movement. On the NARAL Pro-Choice America blog, Nancy explained her Newsweek quote and highlighted NARAL's new research on young people and voting pro-choice. Her comments and the new research are focused on young people who consider themselves pro-choice but aren't at all likely to be vocal about it and as the research showed, aren't likely to vote based on being pro-choice either.

As a 28 year old Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut, I am what they consider a "millenial" and I too was initially offended by the Newsweek article. But, once I read Ms. Keenan's blog and understood what the research was trying to get at--Why the majority of young pro-choice women don't vote pro-choice-- I became frustrated for other reasons.

First of all, stop calling us post-Roe. That may be true, but it ignores and all but denies the fact that we grew up within an abortion context. Our context was one of extreme divisiveness, in which clinics were being bombed, doctors were being killed, and the Catholic Church told our friends and family members that abortion was wrong. I don't find it shocking at all that the young people surveyed in this poll didn't think the right to access abortion is in jeopardy, because I think that many young people have chosen to remove themselves from the debate. And for many "millenials" that's all that pro-choice/pro-life is...a debate, a fight, an argument that they would much rather ignore than take part in.

The second important thing highlighted by this research is that "millenials" are more likely to see abortion as a moral issue. Again, not shocked and again, consider our context. For many in my generation, religion was still a central part of the family life, that is until we came of age and were no longer required to attend. For years, many young people were taught by their religion or heard from the religion of others that abortion is wrong and unacceptable and so there is an inherent "guilt" associated with abortion.

It is important to note though, that millenials are less religious than older Americans and fewer young adults belong to any particular faith than older people do today. Regardless of our religious upbringing or current beliefs, I think that for many young people, religion isn't as black and white as it was for the generations before us. Morality & beliefs may influence our decisions but religion doesn't dictate them. So, when I hear that a young person can think abortion is wrong but not think it should be illegal, I understand. I may not agree with something, but that doesn't give me the right to tell someone else what to do.

Lastly, it's time to stop using the, "you never grew up in a time when abortion was illegal" in an accusatory way and start seeing that in context. You're right, abortion has always been legal for us, so telling us over and over again to "Keep Abortion Legal" seems stale and a little bit extreme. What we need to focus on, and NARAL Pro-Choice America does a good job of this, is the fact that while pro-lifers would rather continue debating over abortion, pro-choicers are interested in addressing the underlying reasons why women seek abortions in the first place--lack of sex education, cost of birth control, rape, incest, etc. Abortion must be kept legal because everyone's experience is different.

Lastly, can we have a re-count on "millenials"...really, who came up with that?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Justice John Paul Stevens Set to Retire, Loss of Pro-Choice Ally

At a forum in his honor at Fordham University Law School in 2005, Justice John Paul Stevens declared an important principle not often recognized by the Roberts Court: "Learning on the job is essential to the process of judging."

Stevens exemplified this M.O. during his 34 years as a Supreme Court Justice, becoming one of the more liberal members of the Court through a varied trajectory. His announcement to retire at the end of this term marks the regrettable loss of both an ally for women's rights and of a certain integrity in jurisprudence.

As the first Justice named to the Supreme Court after the decision of Roe v. Wade, Stevens initially exhibited a slight conservative bent, voting against requiring the government to pay for abortions for women who could not afford them. As Linda Greenhouse notes in her piece about the eras of judicial politics Stevens' tenure straddles, "little in his early performance suggested that he would come to play an important strategic role in preserving the right to abortion, let alone that he would retire three decades later as the leader of the court’s remaining liberals."

But, learning in the process, Stevens came to consistently vote to uphold Roe v. Wade, supported affirmative action, and championed lesbian gay and transgender rights. Stevens is now among the strongest supporters of the right to choose currently serving on the Supreme Court, as his record reflects a respect for individual freedom and opposition to political interference in personal decisions.

As this summer is bound to bring an ardent battle over Steven's replacement, it is my hope that whoever is nominated not only learns from their job, but also learns from Justice Stevens.