Political Flavors

Next Post: LI Families Responds »

In Defense of “The Contraceptive Mentality”

Posted in Editorials on February 28th, 2012

Sara Robinson wrote an article in Alternet last week, “Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control.” (Hat Tip, Amanda.) It’s an excellent article and I believe it really underscores the heart of many of our current arguments about sex and feminism.

What I think needs to be added though is that it’s not just the technology that has changed, it’s that our attitudes have changed with it that creates the panic. Humans have always sought methods of contraception. Condoms have been around for hundreds of years. Diaphragms and the use of substances thought to be spermicidal dates back thousands of years. As the story of Onan reminds us, people have known about withdrawal since the beginning of recorded history – and recent studies show is it is incredibly effective if used correctly.

The other thing we learn from the way some religious traditions have interpreted the story of Onan is that the opposition to contraceptives has existed for centuries. And yet people continued to use them. It’s almost impossible to separate out the changing role of women with the decrease of taboo around contraception use, especially as technology made contraceptives more effective and easier and safer to use. The two trends obviously fed off of one another. Diaphragms made from vulcanized rubber allowed women some freedom, and then the pill and IUD gave even more. But those working women with planned pregnancies were the ones demanding more and better contraceptives. Now we have arrived at a point in history where not only is contraception incredibly effective – it’s also overwhelmingly popular – and that is what is creating a crisis for patriarchy.

New technologies are not always more popular and more frequently used as they advance. To draw a contrast – technology has also made weapons more effective and efficient. We can kill people with predator drones, atomic bombs and machine guns far easier than in the days of bows and arrows or even cannon balls and muskets. And yet we are growing less violent over time. If we were using modern weapons at the pace we are using modern contraception – there would be no people left on Earth at all.

Conservative Christians who oppose any form of contraception (and even those who allow Fertility Awareness Method) frequently refer to the popularity of contraception as “The Contraceptive Mentality.” It appears that this term was first coined by Catholics. The argument goes that if people use contraception and it fails, the woman will probably get an abortion because the fact that she was using contraception is evidence that the couple did not want a child. Somehow, Catholics believe that this makes contraception itself the cause of abortion. The logic is faulty, because before contraceptives were so widely available, women still sought abortions – and as contraceptive use goes up, the abortion rate goes down.

These people reject the rebuttal that we just need more and better birth control and better education about how to use it because they believe that contraception causes people to have sex when they do not want to get pregnant, and that if it did not exist those not ready for a(nother) child would simply abstain. There is no evidence for this belief, and Guttmacher Reports that “Forty-six percent of women who have abortions had not used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant.” This does not include whatever percentage of women who giving up babies for adoption who did not use birth control when they got pregnant. That these women went ahead and had sex without using contraception even though they did not want to give birth proves that people will have sex, even when they do not wish to procreate. Additionally, if that 46%+ had improved access to contraception and information about how to use it correctly, many of those women would not have gotten pregnant unintentionally in the first place.

If there is such a thing as “The Contraceptive Mentality” I would argue that it is a good thing. When Margaret Sanger was teaching people how to use contraception, she was doing it because her dream was for every child to be a wanted child. Contraception does not cause a lack of interest in parenting. There have always been people who could not bear the burden of child rearing. We had ways of dealing with those people, whether they be abortions, early forms of contraception or “foundling wheels” where people could abandon unwanted children no questions asked. Instead, now we have the knowledge and the technology to prevent the burden of unwanted pregnancy. I find it far more humane to teach contraception than to build orphanages. It’s much better for people who love each other to be able to share their sexuality on their own terms than for them to live in fear from the exhaustion and bankruptcy that more children than they could handle can bring them.

What scares patriarchs is that more people agree with me. It’s not the mere existence of contraceptive technology – that’s been around for ages. The way that feminism and contraception have advanced and strengthened each other – and that this has culminated in a world where people accept contraception as a good thing and women’s equality as self evident are the revolutionary ideas they are attacking.

Next Post: LI Families Responds »

Leave a Reply