Contraception and the Chastity Myth

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How’s this for a kick in the ovaries?

According to a federal court in St. Louis, the Union Pacific Railroad Company’s health plan does not discriminate against female employees by denying them coverage for birth-control pills.

Never mind that women bear all of the health consequences for unplanned pregnancy — or that the Union Pacific plan does cover prescription drugs used exclusively by men, such as Rogaine and Viagra. Never mind that without contraception, a woman is likely to become pregnant 12 to 15 times over the course of her reproductive life — or that the Centers for Disease Control listed contraception on the top 10 list of greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.

According to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, because the railroad’s health insurance plans do not cover any contraception, for men or women, it did not violate the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, part of the federal law forbidding discrimination in employment.

So what was behind the Eighth Circuit’s decision? When I posed this question to Roberta Riley, the Planned Parenthood lawyer representing the plaintiffs, she seemed as baffled as I am. She did say, however, that after she’d presented the court with a mountain of scientific and statistical evidence in support of her case, Judge Pasco Bowman responded with a comment to the effect that “all the women” he knew “really enjoy being pregnant.” Riley added, “Perhaps that gives you an insight into his thinking.”

Perhaps it does. In fact, if history is any indication, it may have been inspired by the same paternalistic logic that gave rise to the chastity belt — namely, that women should remain pure, lest they become “tainted” by sex.

Sound crazy? In 1727, the English writer Daniel Defoe, who wrote “Robinson Crusoe,” warned that sex should not be separated from reproduction, lest “a man may, in effect, make a whore of his own wife.” More recently, Dr. Joseph B. Sanford, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002 to the FDA’s Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee, wrote: “Sexual union in marriage ought to be a complete giving of each spouse to the other, and when fertility (or potential fertility) is deliberately excluded from that giving, I am convinced that something valuable is lost.”

Video: The Road Toward Equality

And what is that something? Members of what has been dubbed the new “chastity chic” would probably call it “purity.”

Pastor Randy Wilson recently asked, “Are you ready to war for your daughter’s purity?”, to an enthusiastic crowd at the Colorado Springs Seventh Annual Father-Daughter Purity Ball, a wedding-like event in which tuxedo-clad fathers escorted their tiara-wearing daughters and pledged to “protect” their purity until marriage. When Wilson’s daughter Lauren hit adolescence, he gave her a purity ring and a charm necklace with a tiny lock and key. Randy took the key — and promised to give it to Lauren’s husband on her wedding day.

Concern about female chastity has also clouded the discussion about the cervical cancer vaccine that was approved last year, and that some states want to require for school-aged girls. Focus on the Family, a Christian advocacy group, says women should simply avoid being exposed to the virus which causes cervical cancer (HPV) by not having sex. Sounds simple enough — but according to a recent study entitled “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” even among women who were born in the 1940s, nearly nine in 10 do have sex before marriage.

Moreover, researchers estimate that more than six million new HPV infections occur each year, and that by age 50 at least 80 percent of women have been infected. Dr. Laura Koutsky, a professor of epidemiology and HPV expert at the University of Washington in Seattle also points out, to rely on the “just say no” approach, “you’d also have to guarantee — I hate to say it — that you’re not going to be raped.” There were 191,670 victims of rape, attempted rape or sexual assaults in 2005 according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

So is the “ignorance is bliss” approach working? Two prominent researchers of adolescent sexuality, Peter Bearman of Columbia and Hannah Brueckner of Yale found that while teenage participants in abstinence-only programs were more likely to delay sexual activity (by about 18 months), they were just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases — and tended not to use contraceptives once they did become sexually active. Moreover, they were five times more likely to have oral or anal sex in the belief that such activities did not violate their “virginity pledges.”

“The money being poured into these programs is out of control,” says Bearman. “And the thing is this is not about public health. It’s a moral revolution. The goal is not stopping unwanted pregnancy but stopping sexual expression.”

And that brings us back to the issue of how the Eighth Circuit concluded that denying coverage of birth-control pills to female employees is not discriminatory. Although we may never know the real answer, Riley did say that Planned Parenthood is in the process of considering whether to appeal to the Supreme Court. In any case, she says, “We view this disturbing Eighth Circuit decision as a call to action for Congress to protect and expand contraceptive coverage by enacting the Prevention First Act.”

As I discuss in my new book, “The 51% Minority,” Senators Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton introduced the legislation in 2005 to require health plans to cover prescription birth control, expand access to reproductive health care services and education programs, and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. The legislation is currently stuck in committee.

Video: The Road Toward Equality

Although the Eighth Circuit won’t likely be ruling on the literal use of chastity belts any time soon, courts across the land will no doubt be hearing similar cases in the days ahead. The bottom line, though, says Riley, is that a federal solution is needed to assure that every American woman has access to the contraception she needs.

I couldn't agree more.

Chastity Sources

According to a federal appellate panel …Viagra
Daniel Defoe quote
Dr. Joseph B. Sanford quote
Chastity Chic
Randy Wilson — Purity Ball
Focus on the Family, HPV
Study, “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003”
Six million new HPV infections occur each year…Koutsky quote
National Crime Victimization Survey.
Two prominent researchers . . . virginity pledges
Bearman quote
The legislation is currently stuck in committee.

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.