Birth Control and the Cantankerous Patriarchy

By Jack O' Dwyer

Image: “Fight for Birth Control” banner for PlannedParenthood’s #Fight4BirthControl movement |

Image: “Fight for Birth Control” banner for PlannedParenthood’s #Fight4BirthControl movement |

Where does one first begin to learn autonomy? It’s as effortless a question to answer as it is to read this screen: within oneself. Personal agency begins within the core of the person. Making decisions about what to do, where to go, even what to eat affirms confidence in the right to make private decisions. I would, perhaps, even argue that this could be a root of entitlement to privacy, itself. No one has to know you had two bowls of cereal at 2am while playing World of Warcraft, just like no one needs to give you permission to do so.

If there’s anything that kills this executive function high, however, it’s being on the receiving end of undue restrictions. Being told to go to bed when you’re 8 is much different than when you’re 22. Examining this at a more macro-level: crotchety legislation is the enemy of autonomous agency.

And nothing is more heavily legislated than female birth control.

There’s a sort of metathesiophobia -- fear of change -- that seems to tangle this conversation with superstition at every turn. It’s almost as if some kind of huge propaganda campaign has been launched to scare American women away from taking control of their fertility. I wonder where that idea could be coming from? Over the years, the myths seem to have only grown more wild and outlandish like a twisted garden grove. Hormonal birth control will “break your uterus” according to healthcare policy advisor Katy Talento, who took it upon herself to write a whole column detailing just that. Apparently, it causes rampant infertility, is unnatural or unhealthy, can lead to serious cancers, and even cause unwanted miscarriages. Her advice for family planning? Try the Rhythm Method! (Just kidding, please don’t do this.)

At one point, I was told that being on birth control would cause me to “go crazy” or that I’d hurt myself due to a “sudden, overpowering shift in hormones”. Even some older relatives are baffled that, despite being currently monogamously with another woman, my girlfriends continued to be on birth control. I was once confronted by such a concerned relative that perhaps said girlfriend was cheating on me -- as if I wasn’t aware she was taking it or that there could possibly be other benefits to the pill besides avoiding pregnancy.

It’s not rocket science that birth control has a lot of uses and advantages. Some of these can be critical like reducing symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and Endometriosis, two things I wouldn’t wish on anyone. In the interest of saving you some tabs, dear reader, and hopefully making a meaningful impact on your understanding, allow me to quickly explain these things to you. PCOS is when an individual has a hormonal imbalance that causes infertility, irregular hair growth, and angry, painful cysts literally growing on the ovaries. Endometriosis is when the tissue that’s supposed to grow inside the uterus invades and/or grows outside the uterus, sometimes spreading into the thighs, lower back, possibly coating fallopian tubes, and causing some of the worst pain you will ever experience in your entire life. Those who suffer from endometriosis report that the pain can be so bad they cannot function in their day to day lives -- sometimes likening the pain to labor. Too bad they didn’t just take an aspirin, am I right?

Birth control can also help alleviate less-threatening issues like debilitating menstrual cramping and smooth out awkward, irregular cycles. Mood swings can be common, yes, but I’ve heard several accounts dictating that the opposite had happened -- the relief of one friend’s premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD). Afterall, last time I checked, serotonin and norepinephrine weren’t listed on the package. That infertility stuff is a bunch of malarkey, too. Birth control can even help prevent certain types of cancers, possibly years after stopping the medication.

Some vaginal/ovarian bearing individuals use birth control to stop or skip their periods, which is perfectly healthy as long as that person is healthy. One can go months -- even years -- without having a monthly period. There is no evidence to show that purposefully skipping periods has any long term negative effect on one’s health. Sometimes, this is even prescribed to those who suffer from Dysmenorrhea, otherwise known as painful periods. I’d wager it does wonders for those of us with some awful gender dysphoria, too.

Semi-related, while we’re here, abstinence-only education is the thing that leads to teen pregnancy -- not access to birth control or sex education. Abstinence education is not a significant deterrent to “sexually risky behavior”.

Though, when given more thought, perhaps it is not a general change, but a change in power. Is it so far-fetched to believe that aggressive contemporary misogyny is centered around the fear that women will one day treat men like men have treated us? If agency’s infancy begins in the self, then it only makes sense to cut off that connection in order to control the person. Once you believe you cannot control what happens to your own body it becomes harder to believe you can control anything outside it. Ergo: altering a person’s perception of what can be achieved often diminishes their will to reach beyond it. “Such things are impossible.”

That is the core reasoning as to why most opposing individuals reject women’s accessibility to birth control. Of course, this isn’t a new tactic for the Religious Right, one of the main opponents of pretty much anything have to do with female liberties/empowerment. Their rhetoric consists near entirely of “women should be subservient” and “birth control turns your uterus into a graveyard”. It won’t surprise you to know this a battle the government and its backing evangelicals have been fighting for years, starting with prohibiting advertisements in the late 1800s. This was eventually repealed and made way for the first oral contraceptive in 1960. Some claim that, much like with everything providing equity to those who need it, this infringes upon their religious freedom. That has got to be the biggest deus ex machina in American politics, to date.

I don’t want to be doomsayer, but I would encourage you to support your local Planned Parenthood clinic in the years to come. These recent cases don’t bode well if you’re one of the 99% of women enjoying the freedom that comes with using some kind of contraceptive. People are worth more than their ability to host a baby and these restrictions, constant backlash, and evangelical rhetoric do nothing but diminish one’s value to just that -- a machine for reproduction. A person fully dependent on a failing socio-political structure to make decisions about their body for them. I don’t know about you, but I have a feeling Margaret Atwood is watching us all in earnest.