This week, Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) sparked considerable controversy when he suggested that offering insurance coverage for birth control is rooted in the assumption that women need the government to help them control their sex drives. Huckabee is hardly the first lawmaker to make an illogical comment about reproductive health that seems to belie the way that women’s reproductive systems actually work. Gaffes of this nature have become a serious problem for the GOP party, particularly as it attempts to attract more female voters.
Republicans have held some training sessions to help teach lawmakers how to better talk to women, but the issue may have deeper roots than a lack of PR savvy. Some lawmakers simply need to go back to health class. Here are five important lessons about reproductive health that GOP politicians should commit to memory:
1. Birth control pills aren’t directly correlated to how much sex a woman is having.
Republican lawmakers often refer to birth control as if it has a direct relationship with sex — as in, the women who have sex more frequently need to take pills more frequently, and the woman who aren’t having a lot of sex don’t need to worry as much about paying for birth control. Rush Limbaugh is a big proponent of this assumption about reproductive health. “She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford her birth control,” the conservative radio host said in reference to Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who was maligned for testifying in favor of Obamacare’s birth control coverage.
In fact, women who rely on oral contraceptives need to take a pill once every day, regardless of the frequency of their sexual activity. There’s no extra charge for the women who have more sex — they’re just, quite literally, getting more bang for their buck.
The type of pill that Limbaugh is referencing could eventually become a reality, however. Researchers may be getting closer to developing an oral contraceptive that women could take before each instance of sexual intercourse. The medically accurate term is “pericoital birth control,” although Cosmopolitan favors “edible condoms.” Ironically, this method would actually make the most sense for the women who are having sex fairly infrequently.
2. Over half of the women who use birth control need it for medical reasons.
Republicans typically make comments about birth control coverage solely in the context of the government paying for women’s sex lives. Obviously, many sexually active women are using the pill to prevent pregnancy. But there are also several unrelated medical reasons that a woman may need oral contraceptives. Sandra Fluke is another good example to illustrate this. Her testimony in favor of birth control wasn’t about how much sex she was having; it was actually about a lesbian friend who uses the pill to treat ovarian cysts.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 58 percent of women on the pill are using it at least partly for medical reasons. Some of those women are also using the pill for pregnancy prevention, but about 1.5 million American women need birth control solely for medical reasons.
The reasons for needing the pill can range from regulating painful menstrual cycles, to preventing cramps, to controlling acne, to treating endometriosis.
3. There’s a difference between preventing fertilization (ie, contraception) and ending a pregnancy (ie, abortion).
Particularly in the context of the controversy over Obamacare’s birth control provision, conservatives frequently conflate birth control with abortion. Dozens of legal challenges against the health reform law are based on the scientifically inaccurate claim that Plan B, or the “morning after pill,” is a type of abortion-inducing drug. But that’s not what’s actually going on inside a woman’s body.
Obviously, birth control is a preventative health service because it doesn’t end an existing pregnancy. Contraceptive methods prevent sperm from coming into contact with, and ultimately fertilizing, a woman’s egg. Oral birth control pills accomplish this by using hormones to manipulate two biological functions in the female reproductive system. The pill prevents ovulation, the process by which an egg leaves the ovaries, and thickens cervical mucus, which helps slow sperm and block them from meeting an egg. It’s important to remember that ovulation is a process that can take up to 48 hours, and sperm can live in the female body for several days — so fertilization doesn’t happen immediately after sexual intercourse. That’s why it’s possible to prevent pregnancy even after sex has occurred, using emergency contraception.
The so-called “morning after pill” functions in the same way that the birth control pill does, by attempting to prevent ovulation and thicken cervical mucus. There is no scientific evidence that Plan B disrupts what’s called “implantation,” when a fertilized egg implants in the uterine lining — a disruption that many conservatives would consider to be abortion. The abortion pill, on the other hand, does destroy an implanted embryo. That’s the difference.
4. The biology of pregnancy is the same for both consensual and nonconsensual sex.
Former Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s (R) infamous comments about “legitimate rape” sparked a larger conversation about sexual assault, pregnancy, and abortion access. Of course, Akin’s assertion that women who are raped don’t often become pregnant is scientifically incorrect. The female body is not able to distinguish between sperm that results from consensual sexual intercourse and sperm that results from a sexual assault. The national rape-related pregnancy rate is about five percent, and an estimated 32,000 women become pregnant from rape every year.
And more broadly, it’s perhaps important for lawmakers to understand that there are some realities about pregnancy and abortion that hold true no matter what type of sexual experience was involved. Some women who become pregnant from rape want to carry the pregnancy to term, just like some women who conceive from consensual sex. But other women who conceive as a result of sexual assault can’t imagine continuing that pregnancy — because of the emotional implications of the paternity, because of their individual financial situation, because they are already parenting, because it’s dangerous for their body to attempt to support a fetus, or because they simply don’t want to be pregnant. These are the same circumstances facing the women who end other types of unintended pregnancies.
Ultimately, ranking women’s experiences against each other to decide who “deserves” abortion access — as if women who have not been raped don’t have a good enough reason to need reproductive health care — hasn’t been a very effective policy.
5. Talking about sex doesn’t encourage people to have more sex.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the lawmakers who make inaccurate statements about sexual and reproductive health are the same ones who consistently oppose efforts to implement comprehensive sex ed. Indeed, the GOP’s official party platform continues to enshrine abstinence-only education as the best approach for America’s youth.
One of the primary reasons that conservatives oppose comprehensive sex ed is because they believe it’s inappropriate to expose kids to explicit content about human sexuality. If health classes give teenagers step-by-step instructions for becoming sexually active, that will just end up encouraging them to have more sex, right?
Wrong. There’s actually a large body of research that proves teaching kids about sex actually encourages them to delay the first instance of sexual activity. According to one review of comprehensive sex ed programs conducted by a researcher from National Campaign to End Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, these type of programs result in teens delaying sex, having sex less frequently and with fewer partners, and using contraception more consistently. The ongoing resistance to Obamacare’s birth control coverage often seems to be rooted in the same discomfort with giving young women the resources they need to be sexually healthy. But there’s no evidence that state-backed efforts to improve reproductive health result in a rash of sexual promiscuity.