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Shortly after the recent Supreme Court decision ruling that the closely held corporations Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties were not required to provide coverage for certain types of contraceptives to their employees, NPR ran a story that should make women a bit queasy.
"Most Employers See a Benefit in Covering Contraceptives," ran the headline. Adam Sonfield, senior public policy associate with the Gutt-macher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood, told NPR that most companies see a benefit in providing birth control coverage to their employees. "There are so many incentives for companies to cover contraceptives," said Sonfield. Among these are cost savings to both insurers and employers, because, well, giving a woman some pills, implanting a device in her uterus, or paying for an abortion are a heck of a lot cheaper than prenatal care and delivery.
The statement reveals the dirty secret at the heart of the birth control debate: it's not about "women's health." A true concern for women's health would instead demand that we look closely at the health risks of hormonal contraceptives and abortion. In 2005, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an inter-governmental organization affiliated with the World Health Organization, named estrogen and progesterone oral contraceptives, as well as hormonal post-menopausal therapy, to be Group 1 carcinogens. The Breast Cancer Prevention Institute has identified 57 studies done since 1957 that report a positive correlation between induced abortion and breast cancer, compared to 16 studies that report no such correlation.
Plenty of other research indicates that birth control pills, intrauterine devices, and abortifacient drugs such as Plan B and Ella are, in fact, pretty dangerous. A woman's body produces huge amounts of hormones to support her reproductive system, and it takes huge amounts of hormones to shut that system down artificially. Most birth control actually works by "tricking" the body into inhibiting ovulation. In a society where we are increasingly wary of growth hormones that show up in our meat, we remain blithely unconcerned about pumping hormones directly into women's bodies.
Why do we persist in remaining so unaware? Adam Sonfield named one reason, though probably unwittingly—money.
Babies cost money. Quite a bit of money, actually, when you add up the costs of prenatal care, hospital care, and maternity leave. Then consider that pharmaceutical companies make billions of dollars from birth control, and it's no wonder that everyone is so anxious that all women have access to it.
But this concern over the costs of having children is shortsighted, to say the least. Historically, when birth control is introduced, population declines. We have seen this in the U.S., where we have finally hit below-replacement fertility levels in the last couple of years. In the long term, our concern with the financial burden of children is literally going to cost us our nation.
Even in the shorter term, the costs of childbearing don't necessarily outweigh the benefits to society. In a 2009 article in Population and Development Review, Douglas A. Wolf and others discussed a study finding that for each child a couple had, society saw a net benefit of $217,000 (in 2009 dollars). The researchers concluded that there are "substantial public benefits to childrearing," and they even suggested that tax policy be amended to encourage it.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that most women enjoy being mothers and generally want to get married, have families, and devote time to caring for their children.
So it's time to stop pretending that concern for women's health or women's equality is the main reason for the push to get every woman on the Pill. And it's time to start pondering the benefits of encouraging family growth, for both women themselves and for society at large. •
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