In the past several weeks, controversy over contraception pushed conventional economic issues from the headlines. For a surprising number of news cycles, birth control pills—and the millions of women who take them—dominated the news, instead of jobs and the economy.
Many pundits, advocates, and politicians were unhappy with this shift, claiming that contraception was a distraction from the “real issues” people cared about. Even Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, weighed in, saying, “Women care about jobs. Women care about the economy. They care about their children, and they care about debt.”
Jobs, the economy, and debt—all of these are tied to access to affordable contraception. But Ann and others seemed to miss the fact that contraception and the economy do not live in separate realms. In fact, they are closely connected.
Every day, couples have kitchen-table conversations about whether they can afford to have a child. If they already are parents, they talk about whether they can afford another child. Do they have health insurance? Do their jobs provide maternity or paternity leave, and is it paid or unpaid? What about sick leave? How much will child care cost? Will they need to move to a bigger home? And most basic of all: Can a woman afford the contraception she needs in order to plan her family?
As we explain below, women cannot responsibly plan their families or their careers without access to affordable contraception. But that’s not all they need. Affordable housing, health care, and equal pay are also key to their economic security and family stability. That’s why we need to safeguard policies that protect the middle class, not shred it, as the latest House Republican budget plan aims to do.
How contraception became headline news
President Barack Obama announced on January 20 that under the Affordable Care Act employers were required to include no-cost preventive services, including contraception, in their health care plans. Churches and houses of worship were exempt from the birth control requirement, but religiously affiliated employers such as hospitals, universities, and charities, were not.
The president’s announcement triggered a storm of protest, ranging from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to prominent Catholic liberals. Some critics accused President Obama of “waging a war on religion,” and Republican presidential candidates picked up the theme.
Three weeks after the announcement, the president issued a revised regulation that included an accommodation for religiously affiliated employers. Under the new rule these employers would not be required to include contraceptive coverage in their health plans. Instead, their employees would get no-cost coverage directly from the insurance provider.
The new rule satisfied most critics but not all of them. Many conservative members of Congress, leaders on the religious right, and others notched up their demands. They now argued that no employer, religiously affiliated or not, should have to include contraception—or any other health service they found morally objectionable—in their health plans.
As conservatives demanded religious liberty for bosses, women’s groups and others stood up for the religious liberty of employees who needed contraception to follow their conscience and live responsible lives.
Not surprisingly, broader economic issues such as jobs were no match for fights about reproduction, religion, and women’s sexuality. When economic issues did break through the news, however, they focused on the cost of contraception—and the fact that millions of women struggle to pay for it.
While contraception’s price tag is certainly an issue, missing from the debate was the broader picture connecting family planning with women’s economic circumstances.
Why contraception is an economic issue
It’s not just the cost of contraception. Family planning allows women to control the timing of when they have children, which in turn allows them to pursue their education and career. Indeed, women now make up half of the nation’s workforce, and 60 percent of women are breadwinners for their family—in large part because of greater access to contraception. A recent study showed that birth control played a critical role in reducing the gender pay gap because of the investments it allowed women to make in their education and careers.
Because family planning enables women to plan their pregnancies, it also leads to healthier mothers and babies. As a result, it reduces costs to individuals and families, to our health care system, and to society.
Finally, a woman’s economic circumstances can strongly influence whether and when she chooses to have children and therefore whether and when she needs to use contraception. For instance, a woman whose job provides no paid family leave might not be able to afford time off from her job to bond with her newborn and to recover from childbirth. The same is true for a woman without health insurance who has to choose between taking her child to the doctor and paying the rent. Even worse, a woman whose local Planned Parenthood clinic gets shut down is squeezed between no choices at all. She can’t afford to have more children, nor can she afford the birth control she needs to avoid getting pregnant.
Conservatives should support access to contraception and other family-supporting policies
All women live somewhere on the economic ladder. So you would think pro-family conservatives would do whatever they could to promote women’s economic security, since it is so crucial to their families’ and their own well-being.
Unfortunately, you would be wrong.
From affordable health care to paid sick days, from equal pay to affordable housing, conservatives are fiercely opposing the very structures families need in order to grow strong. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) fiscal year 2013 budget proposal, which just passed the House, offers a striking case in point. It would raise taxes on middle-class families, increase unemployment, shred the health care safety net, shortchange education, increase the national deficit, and more.
The Ryan budget would cripple America’s families. Its draconian cuts would strip away the economic stability women and their families need, even as its supporters proclaim their love of family. These supporters need to either put basic family protections in their budget or quit pretending they’re on the side of mothers, fathers, and children.
Bottom line: Pundits and politicians need to realize that contraception is not just a hot-button issue. It and other policies such as paid sick days and equal pay are integral to women’s economic security.
About the author: Sally Steenland is the Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and Jessica Arons is the Director of the Women's Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.
This article was published by the Center for American Progress.