There’s a lot of noise going on right now about contraception. Obama wants to increase access to it by making contraceptives covered by insurance. Representatives of religious organizations believe that by paying for said insurance they are “condoning” contraceptive use, which is contrary to their beliefs. I won’t try to sound objective: I think it’s patently ridiculous to frame this as a freedom-of-religion issue. Covering the cost of preventative care (including contraceptives like the Pill) in your employer-provided insurance plan is not the same as telling you that you can’t worship as you see fit.
Some on the freedom-of-religion side of the argument feel that contraceptives are tantamount to abortion. This is false, plain and simple. A quick recap of how some popular contraceptives work:
- Condoms: Available at your local drugstore. These block sperm from entering the female reproductive tract, thus preventing conception. Not abortion.
- “The Pill”: A hormonal formula that changes the balance of hormones in the woman to mimic pregnancy or lactation, thereby preventing ovulation. No ovulation means no egg to get fertilized by a sperm. Not abortion. In addition, the pill can lead to increased viscosity of the cervical fluid which can prevent sperm from entering the uterus (so even if an egg was ovulated, it would never get fertilized).
- Intrauterine devices (IUD): There are 2 types: a hormonal one and a copper wire one. The hormonal type works similarly to the pill. The copper wire IUD works in two ways. First, it kills sperm. No sperm, no pregnancy. If a sperm does manage to fertilize an egg, the hostile environment set up by the IUD (it triggers a “no vacancy” signal in the uterus) prevents implantation. No implantation=no pregnancy=not abortion.
- Emergency contraception (“Morning after pill”): This is basically a high dose of the regular Pill. You would use this if you accidentally missed a pill or 2 and had unprotected sex, if your normal contraceptive strategy (e.g., condoms) failed, or if you simply had unplanned unprotected sex. If ovulation has not yet occurred, emergency contraception can prevent ovulation. If it has, it can cause the lining of the uterus to become hostile to implantation, so in case an egg had been fertilized it would not implant. Again, not abortion.
- Aspirin: Oh, wait, this is not actually a contraceptive. Just a really, really terrible and insulting joke.
But let’s put aside the contraception issue for a moment. Remember that the idea behind Obama’s mandate is accessibility to preventative medicine. Yes, birth control pills prevent pregnancy, but they also help prevent other things, like ovarian cancer.
This opinion piece in the LA Times by Malcolm Potts brings the non-contraceptive uses of the Pill to the forefront. Dr. Potts also makes an excellent suggestion about how to avoid the whole religion issue altogether (at least for the pill; I don’t know about IUDs): make it available over the counter. Perhaps if our politicians weren’t so busy getting riled up by their own rhetoric, this would have already happened with the emergency contraceptive pill. But, unfortunately, I don’t see this happening anytime soon.
If only our government based its decisions about the availability of medication on science instead of opinions and gut feelings (like the idea that the pill makes women more promiscuous–as if that’s anyone’s business anyway). It would be nice…but I won’t hold my breath.