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Women’s work, contraception and self-determination

Published on 12/3/2022
There’s an anecdote about Lew Wallace that comes to mind when considering the through line between a woman’s right to vote and her self-determination. When attendees persuaded Lew Wallace to speak at the 1880 Indiana Equal Suffrage Association Convention in Crawfordsville, he chose not to speak about women’s suffrage. Instead (to use modern parlance) he “mansplained” new laws about the rights of married women. Reporters wrote that he talked down to his audience if the laws were “utterly incomprehensible to the weak-minded audience.” It would be another forty years before women had the right to vote and influence laws.

With Indiana’s new law restricting abortion, women are questioning other rights they thought they had. 

“How will Indiana’s new law restricting abortion affect access to contraception?” asked Hoosiers via Indiana Two Way, which allows Hoosiers to comment and ask about statewide topics and issues. Their concern: the vague language in S.1, which bans abortions in Indiana. Would access to medications affecting other conditions be influenced if a person could get pregnant? Would IUDs and Plan B remain legal?

Senator Todd Young responded to concerns about protecting access to contraceptives by citing the 1965 US Supreme Court ruling that guaranteed “the right of marital privacy” from government restrictions on the use of contraceptives. (Griswold vs. Connecticut) As Senator Young noted, the Court has “also recognized a constitutional right for unmarried couples as well as minors to access birth control” a decision based on the precedent from the 1965 ruling.

After the fall of Roe this summer, Americans have learned that counting on precedent does not enshrine a right. So, in July, federal representatives and senators initiated legislation to protect and codify a person’s right to contraceptives. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced S.4612 in the US Senate and Representative Kathy Manning introduced H.R.8373 in the US House. Senator Young said he has not yet voted on S.4612 because it is stuck in a judiciary committee. He did not state a clear position on codifying access to and the use of birth control.

Representative Jim Baird made his position clear. He voted against H.R.8373 stating that since there were no “significant efforts underway to change these laws” (those which make contraceptives legal in every state) he felt the bill was “an unnecessary Federal overreach into state law, and unfortunately, another political distraction by Democrats.”

Fortunately, H.R.8373 affirmatively passed the House. If it passes the Senate and into law, it could assuage Hoosiers’ state-specific concerns. However, some Americans prefer to make states the dueling ground over contraception. It’s those who want to limit access to contraceptives to take the fight to states. 

Why oppose contraception? Some people rationalize a “what if” ethical scenario out of deeply held moral convictions. It starts with “Let’s say a person is using certain contraceptives to alter bio-chemical conditions to prevent pregnancy. But a conception happens. What if it doesn’t result in pregnancy? That person may have unknowingly terminated a life. This hypothetical conception prompts some people, out of an abundance of caution, to oppose contraceptives as “abortifacients.”

Which contraceptives are considered potential abortifacients? IUDs, Plan B, and the Pill. In the case of IUDs, copper and hormone-based, they cite old studies that hypothesized that the IUD scrapes out implanted zygotes. Newer research indicates that both the copper and hormone IUD prevent fertilization through several bodily responses. First IUDs evoke an inflammatory effect caused by a foreign body (the IUD) stimulating a white blood cell response that destroys sperm. Secondly, copper IUDs release ions that change cervical mucus and prevent sperm from swimming through. These ions tend to dissolve into the uterine tissue over time, making them less effective, which strengthens the argument that IUDs are not merely “aborting” an implanted zygote through jostling. Hormone IUDs also prevent fertilization. “No studies show that IUDs destroy developing embryos at rates higher than those found in women who are not using contraceptives,” the National Institute of Health confirms.
Plan B and the Pill also work on the basis of preventing conception, first by stopping ovulation and by changing the chemistry in the uterus that would result in conception, let alone implantation. ( 

For most women who rely on birth control, these details are superfluous. It’s as if the debate is now so abstract it is a kind of trolley experiment where the outcome is not who survives or dies, but who gets to live a fully human life. Prohibiting contraceptives alienates a person from their own decision-making about pregnancy and parenting. Those who use contraceptives have a reliable modicum of control before entering into a lifetime commitment to a new human being. 

For anyone who identifies as pro-life, contraceptives could be a boon if coupled with sound healthcare policies that fund and make them widely accessible. A prevented pregnancy cannot result in an abortion. This petition to reframe contraceptives, fund them, and codify their usage legally is for those pro-lifers.

The word suffrage comes from Late Middle English suffragium and means a series of petitions or prayers. The word also meant a vote given in assent to a proposal or in favor of the election of a particular person. In 1880, suffragists petitioned Lew Wallace to join other men and support their right to vote. We now petition in a new suffrage movement. 

Whereas the League of Women Voters and its predecessors brought together conservative and progressive women for suffrage and equality, it’s doing so once again. This time to codify women’s equality in all aspects of life.