Friday, October 14, 2016
October 14, 2016: Birth Control in America: Sandra Fluke
[On October 16, 1916, Margaret Sanger opened her first birth control clinic in New York City. So this week, on the 100th anniversary of that moment, I’ll AmericanStudy Sanger and other histories and images connected to this still-controversial subject, leading up a special weekend post highlighting a great scholarly book on the topic!]
Two ways the Georgetown law student’s 2012 rise to fame extended my week’s themes and reflect their continued presence in our society and culture.
1) Medical contexts: Details in every post this week, from Esther’s need for a prescription in The Bell-Jar to the debates over the Pill’s side effects, have illustrated that birth control conversations are at least as much as about medicine and health as they are about sexuality and family. But because Fluke’s activism and Congressional testimony were focused on why birth control should be included in health insurance plans and coverage, the medical issues became even more central to this moment and debate. For example, Fluke and her supporters (of which I was and remain one) argued at length that the Pill and birth control are used by women for a number of medical and health purposes, at least as often as they are for sexuality and reproductive control. Such arguments unquestionably risk stereotyping or demonizing women who do use birth control solely for sex (as exemplified by item #2 below), but they nonetheless also help us better engage with the range of issues to which birth control connects.
2) Moral contexts: In his critiques of Fluke’s cause and testimony, right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh laid bare, as he so often does, the narratives at the core of an extremist conservative position (in this case, opposition to birth control). On a February 29th broadcast, Rush argued (among many other things, as that video captures), “Fluke essentially says that she must be paid to have sex—what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.” Leaving aside the entire misrepresentation of Fluke’s position, Limbaugh’s comments reflect an element that’s been central to the debates over birth control from Sanger’s and Esther’s eras down to our own: a connection of birth control to not just sex but promiscuous sex, sex that exists outside of moral frameworks such as those of religion or the traditional family. It was precisely that narrative, after all, which the 1975 Trojan ad was trying to combat. As Limbaugh and many subsequent controversies indicate, that narrative remains very much with us in the 21st century, making it all the more important that we better remember the histories of birth control on which I’ve focused this week.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or images you’d highlight?