Is It Anti-Woman to Oppose Contraceptives?

This is a fair question to ask given the the increased control and freedom of choice contraceptives have provided women.  It’s also a question that has been implicitly raised in the debates about the HHS mandate.   E.D. Kain, for example, writing in the context of Santorum’s views on contraceptives, stated, “if we’re to really grow as a culture and a people, we have to get past the notion that somehow women are inferior or that they shouldn’t have control over their own destiny.”

Yes, we do, and E.D.’s words here are helpful. If opposition to birth control arises from the notion that women are inferior or shouldn’t have control over their own destiny, then I think it’s fair to say that the opposition is anti-woman.  Is it always true, though, that this notion underlies opposition to birth control?  Let’s consider the following cases:

First case: Katherina and Petruchio.  They do not use birth control because Petruchio forbids it and Katherina goes along with his demand.  Petruchio wants lots of children, as many as possible.  Katherina is ambivalent, but acquiesces to Petruchio’s desires, believing that being a good wife means being supportive, obedient, and submissive to her husband.

Case two: Hermione and Ron, another married couple. They refuse to use birth control as well, both strongly believing that children are a gift from God and that it would be immoral for them (or anyone else) to regulate the reproductive systems  in any way.  For them, every act of sex must be an attempt to get pregnant.

Case three: Celes.  Celes objects to using birth control because she has strongly experienced the negative side effects of their use: using them makes her feel physically ill.  She chooses instead to abstain from sex when she’s fertile.

Fourth case: Wilma.  Wilma has religious and moral objections to contraceptives, i.e., any intentional attempt to hinder procreation or make it impossible.  She chooses instead to avoid pregnancy by abstaining from sex when she’s fertile.

The opposition to birth control in the first case is blatantly anti-woman because it is rooted in 1) Petruchio’s belief that Katherina should have no say in the number of children she carries and to whom she gives birth and 2) Katherina’s belief that she’s inferior to her husband.  An argument could be made that the opposition in case two is also anti-woman because the opposition is to any control on Hermione’s part over her own reproductive processes–a control she ought to have as a free moral person.

In case three, the opposition is based on health problems experienced by Celes when she uses contraceptives.  In opposing the use of birth control for practical reasons, Celes neither demeans herself nor relinquish control over her body, so her opposition does not speak to an anti-woman disposition.

Case four is trickier than the others.  One might argue that a particular religious or moral opposition to birth control implies the inferiority of women, but this would be a difficult if impossible argument to make  in respect to all such conceivable religious and moral objections.  Moreover, Wilma has no less control over her reproductive cycle than Celes: each chooses to exercise control over her body, but each uses means other than contraceptives to do so.   I would therefore say that Wilma’s opposition to birth control is not inherently anti-woman.

So, is it anti-woman to oppose contraceptives?  These four cases indicate that it can be, but it isn’t necessarily so.

What do you think?


Tod makes a criticism below that I’d like to address here as well.  It should be obvious that in none of my case studies, nor in answering the question, did I contend with our very real history of misogyny, patriarchy, and systematic oppression of women.  My conclusions are therefore limited in what they can tell us, but what I’ve established is worth keeping in mind when considering the larger and arguably more important issues: there is no logical connection between being anti-contraception and anti-woman.  Has there been a historical connection?  Yes.  Must there be a future historical connection?  No.  Will there be?  Regrettably, yes.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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35 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    You don’t want to know what I think. Trust me.

  2. Rae says:

    Well done. Cheers for bringing nuance back.

    “Wilma has no less control over her reproductive cycle than Celes: each chooses to exercise control over her body, but each uses means other than contraceptives to do so.” This is essential, and perhaps a hint at the importance of understanding the difference between the concepts of “contraception” and “birth control.”

    One question: what is the significance of making the first two cases couples and the second two cases the women alone? It strikes me as quite possible to have a couple jointly making pro-woman anti-contraception decisions.

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Thank you, Rae. I agree that it’s quite possible for a couple to jointly make a pro-woman, anti-contraception decision. I chose to make the last two cases focused on the woman’s decision for the sake of clarity.

  3. Mark A says:

    Simply opposing contraceptives – in and of itself – is not necessarily anti-woman. What IS anti-woman is excluding women from the decision-making process. It seems just about every individual who publicly (and loudly) opposes contraceptives of late is male. California congressman Darrell Issa recently called a House Committee hearing on the subject in which no women were called to testify. The Catholic Church, which was recently very vocal in its opposition to the contraceptive mandate in Obama’s Healthcare legislation, excludes women from the entire hierarchy. The viewpoint shared by all these men may not be anti-woman but if it is not then where are the famale voices in all of this?

    This is a decision that impacts both men and women, but women bear the greatest burden as well as the greatest risk from pregnancy. Moral arguments can be made for one view of the other, but it is morally suspect at best to come to such conclusions without a woman’s input.

  4. I think it’s possible for opposition to contraception to be motivated by non-misogynistic reasons, but at the same time function to the detriment of women. It’s one thing for the woman, in some of the scenarios above, to choose not to use contraceptives of her own will, and another to forbid her from doing so.

    In fact, I would push the envelope further and say raising her in a culture that suggests such use is sinful might also have the same role in limiting her agency. I’m on thin ground here, and am not sure how to disentangle my own beliefs about contraception and women’s agency, on the one hand, and my disagreement with the Church’s teaching, as I understand them, on the other hand (I still have not read that link you gave me a couple weeks ago about the Church’s stand….I promise to read it one of these days).

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      It’s one thing for the woman, in some of the scenarios above, to choose not to use contraceptives of her own will, and another to forbid her from doing so.

      Absolutely. And you’ll notice that I did not address whether forbidding women access to or use of contraception is anti-women. That’s an important question too, and arguably a more pressing one today. I chose to limit my question in order to establish that there is no logical connection between being anti-contraception and anti-women. That doesn’t tell us much, but it does tell us something worth keeping in mind in the debates about mandates and prohibitions.

  5. Tod Kelly says:

    Kyle – I think this is one of those questions where you are taking and putting in a clean, sterile lab an issue that has a lot of history and messaging attached to it.

    There may well be some out there that feel that someone choosing to forego using contraception for themselves (as in your case studies) is “anti-woman,” but I haven never met them. Most women I know, however, *are* concerned about the idea of access to contraception being dictated by others. And often, the concern is that it is being dictated by men.

    And this is not an unreasonable concern, historically speaking. Remember, we’re only about a generation into a society where a woman’s personal decisions about her own physical and mental health could be superseded by various males (husbands, fiances, family members) in many states. (And, as many older women would point out, this was a unilateral system gender-wise; those same states would have found having wife legally supersede her husband’s personal care decisions a dangerous and wicked idea.)

    Also, while it would be a mistake to paint everyone who is anti-contraception as universal cardboard cut outs, it would be equally disengenuous not to recognize that historically speaking anti-contraception crowds have also supported a lot of what one might call anti-women (or, perhaps more precisely, anti-female equality) issues – especially in regards to female sexuality.

    Women still, by and large, hae to deal with a society where men’s sexuality is seen as both natural and a positive, and women’s as an abnormality that must be quashed. And, again, this often has gone hand in hand with controlling access to all kinds of women’s health care issues, including contraception. In my life (and I’m not that old) I have seen cultural battles where (mostly) male dominated conservatives in various states have argued that a woman raising a hand against her husband was assault, but battery and even rape was a husband’s prerogative. Or that if a wife died without a will her possessions should legally pass to her husband, but in the reverse all property should be transferred to the closest male of kin. Or that killing a woman for lack of keeping the marriage bed was self-defense, but it was murder when the genders were reversed. Or that males who impregnated women out of wedlock should not have courts be able to attach financial liabilities to them for there actions, and that women should shoulder all of those costs since it was them,not the men,who couldn’t control their base urges.

    Do I ascribe any of the above to anyone that is against contraception? No. But I do recognize that in our messy, not on paper society there are actual reasons for women to make some amount of connections here.

    Just as its hard to understand a lot of African American attitudes about power issueswhile ignoring both the existence of slavery or the opposition to civil rights in our history, I don’t think you can look at women’s reactions to the contraception issue as cleanly as you are doing here.

    • I agree with almost all of this comment.

      I’ll add that one can support or oppose something for quite benign, even justifiable reasons, and yet that position of support or opposition can in practice play a role in suppressing others’ rights or prerogatives. (Something a liberal-leaning person like myself needs to acknowledge as I go about supporting whatever policies it is I support.)

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      Tod, I don’t disagree that there’s much more to the story than what I’m presenting in my admittedly limited case studies, but there are advantages to considering questions apart from the complexities of history. The mistake would be to present one’s finding as if one had said all that needed to be said. My interest here was whether or not opposition to contraception is inherently anti-women, and I concluded that it was not, that it is possible to be anti-contraception without being anti-women. Now, having established that, I still have to contend with our very real history of misogyny, patriarchy, and systematic oppression of women. What I can say at the outset, however, is that, while the opposition to contraception has been a part of that history, future opposition to contraception does not logically necessitate a future anti-woman disposition or tradition.

      • Nob Akimoto says:

        There’s a distinct difference between an individual being anti-conception for themselves, and for being anti-conception for OTHERS. Without that distinct, it’s not possible to make any argument about opposition to contraception.

        • Nob Akimoto says:

          More specifically, I think it’s important when we consider this for relationships outside of simple couple-couple dynamics, and instead upon a social level as a whole.

        • Kyle Cupp says:

          I agree that there’s a difference, but one can still make arguments about one or the other. To give an analogy, we can discuss the morality of abortion and we can discuss whether abortion should be legal or illegal. These are distinct questions, and we can answer each without answering the other. To say that abortion is immoral is not to say that it should be illegal. The legal case can be made distinct from the moral case, and the moral case from the legal case. The same is true for contraception. Even if the Catholic hierarchy is correct about the morality of contraceptives, its being correct doesn’t in itself give it the right to outlaw contraceptives or otherwise prevent others from having access to or using them. That course of action needs its own reasons.

  6. b-psycho says:

    In most demonstrated cases it is anti-woman, because it virtually never is based on practical concern for the woman (as demonstrated in your 3rd example). Basing it on anything else is equivalent to saying the woman involved is irrelevant. At least in the 4th case it is still the woman’s choice, though the grounds for the objection aren’t rational.

    Banning access? That’s not only anti-woman, it’s anti-human even. There is no legitimate compelling interest from outside parties, and the grounds of such draconian restraints, regardless of how long the proponents of such can pontificate about it, boil down to nothing more than “I’m taking over your thinking for you, you will do as I say”.

  7. Will Truman says:

    Though I do understand the historical basis for the position, I consider the notion that contraception is all about and only about the woman in the modern context to be rather bizarre. Do men gain nothing from the ability of women to prevent themselves from getting pregnant? Is restricting free condoms anti-male?

    Though I recognize that women are more affected than men by these things, there’s something about the approach that I find aggravating. It’s the same mentality that has people rolling their eyes at the prospect of chemical contraception for men because of course men wouldn’t actually take it because men have no interest in preventing pregnancy. Nothing has really changed since the old days when a man got a woman pregnant and just walked away without social and financial repercussions. And so on.

    • Kimmi says:

      … to be fair, there is a wide range of “how in touch men are with their instincts”… if a guy’s instinctive desire to impregnate girls runs pretty high, then yeah, he might not use chemical contraception.
      Of course, that only effects about 33% of guys…

  8. Kelly says:

    Assuming you accept the idea that women should be able to freely choose under what circumstances to consent to vaginal sex, it is not possible to be anti-contraception without being anti-woman, unless (as others have stated) you are a woman choosing not to use contraceptives for yourself and no one else.

    The health risks posed to women by pregnancy, labor, delivery, and motherhood range from relatively minor issues like exhaustion, nausea, and insomnia to more major health concerns, such as death. (Incidentally, in the U.S., death from pregnancy or childbirth is a much likelier outcome for a woman than if she lived in most European countries, some Asian countries, and a couple of Middle Eastern countries. Yes, we have a higher maternal mortality rate than Serbia.) Contraception, when used effectively, prevents these pregnancy-related health problems–this is why the Institute of Medicine categorized it as preventive care. Being opposed to contraception for anyone other than your individual self, then, effectively means you are opposed to preventing someone else’s life from being potentially threatened by the health risks for pregnancy, which in my book makes you anti-woman.

    That individual women exercise a choice to assume those risks for themselves by becoming pregnant in no way negates the existence of those health issues.

    And the reason this is more a women’s issue than a men’s issue is that women, are the ones who assume the physical risk of death when a pregnancy happens. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the idea that men should participate in decisions about contraception; it’s just that women have a much bigger dog in the fight, so to speak.

    • Will Truman says:

      To say that it is “more” a woman’s issue than a man’s is accurate. What is not accurate is the notion that it is purely a woman’s issue. Or that men’s stake is incidental, negligible, or unimportant. Yet, I have seen in more than once case where men even having an opinion on birth control is deemed illegitimate. Especially when it’s the wrong opinion.

      (For what it’s worth, I am pretty staunchly in favor of contraception.)

      • Michael Drew says:

        It doesn’t have to be purely a women’s issue in order for men’s having an opinion on restricting access to birth control to be illegitimate. If the effect is much greater for women, then men trying to decide on policies about it is basically illegitimate. And because it is women’s bodies that have to endure pregnancy, the effect is overwhelmingly borne by women. Men can voice opinions on this, but they need to be informed by the preferences of women. That’s why it’s wrong for them to have an opinion that is out of step with what the overwhelming majority of women say about it, but simply unremarkable if their opinion reflects it – i.e. it’s different (more wrong) if the have the “wrong” opinion. That’s just an artifact of men’s independent opinion being illegitimate, combined with men holding most of the positions of power and representation in the decision making about such policies.

        You need to get over this, deal with it, and accept it, Will. It’s wouldn’t be legitimate for you to favor restricting/banning birth control, and the fact that you don’t is just you fulfilling an obligation to bow to the wishes of the constituency vastly most affected by the policy question. We’re irrelevant, here, Will, or should be.

        • Will Truman says:


          To an extent, I find the notion that it’s not legitimate for me to favor restricting/banning birth control to be patently absurd. The fact that another group is affected more heavily than the group to which I belong ought to be enough reason to give me pause before taking that position. But illegitimate? That is absurd. I just can’t think of any other way to say it. Absurd.

          If for no other reason, it became absurd when the state (correctly) decided that I am legally obligated to contribute to the material upbringing of any child of mine that another woman brings into this world. Even setting aside the effect it has on the sexual access I would have or would not have on women, and the existential questions of inherent moral obligation, it has already been declared that I have my own interest in preventing the conception of unwanted children.

          • Michael Drew says:

            To an extent, I agree. But then at the same time, I am basically 100% sure that if I were a woman I would consider men’s opinions on what policy relating to contraception should be to be illegitimate. (If those opinions didn’t significantly influence policy, I’d probably just regard them as profoundly uninteresting, but since they do, I think I’d have no choice left but to consider them illegitimate.) I think there are two senses of ‘illegitimate’ at work here. In a universal sense, I agree it’s of course somewhat absurd to say that someone’s mere opinion is illegitimate, but from a perspectival approach, I think a real kind of illegitimacy of power and effect is apparent. Can’t expand on that more right now, but I’ll try to at a later time.

            But for now I’d just ask you to probe your intuition: are any opinions illegitimate? What would it take for one to be, and why isn’t a man’s preference to restrict the birth control options of women (and men)? Or to ask the question in the reverse way: what is the legitimate basis of a man’s opinion that access to (certain forms of) birth control (that women take) ought to be restricted (given that the overwhelming impact of the establishment of such a policy would be against women)?

          • Will Truman says:

            Let’s consider illegitimate in the sense of “lacks standing to have a say.” Is not subject to or substantially affected by the policy. There are cases where I think this does apply (Newt Gingrich and the NAACP is a good ferinstance, assuming there’s not something about Newt Gingrich that I don’t know…).

            Do men lack standing in this discussion? If she doesn’t have access to hormonal contraception, he has to wear a condom. Or be at greater risk of paternity. Or forgo sex. Or something else less desirable than having sex with a diminished reason to fear pregnancy. And if she does turn out pregnant? If she keeps it, he is bound to some degree for life (or at least the next 19 years) to someone he may not wish to be. His pay is diminished. His college aspirations or career may be adversely affected or abandoned altogether because he has a child (that he didn’t want, that he couldn’t dispose of) to support. If he’s worth a damn, he won’t move, either, so that he can play a role in his kids life. That has personal and professional repercussions. Parenthood of the unwanted variety is a big deal, even for men.

            Not to get too personal, but I have been through this drill, in some form or another, too many times. I’ve had weeks absolutely torn up with fears that my life was about to change for reasons that were no longer under my control. (And all of this in a world with contraception availability.) I have almost been tied to the wrong person. If any one of them had turned out differently, I wouldn’t have gotten the marriage that I did (I never would have been able to leave my hometown). To be told that I, as a man, lack standing on this issue is just… incorrect.

            Now, my long and winding road has brought me to the position that hormonal contraception for women is a great thing. But my standing doesn’t suddenly evaporate if I come to a different conclusion. If I think the above trials and turmoils should be amplified in order to change the underlying behavior (and without the Illusion of Safety that contraception was supposed to represent, it just might have worked). If I think God says so. Or for some other misbegotten reason.

            If a woman wants to disregard my point of view because, as one put it (in response to Burt), “Isn’t it funny how people with penises conclude birth control is no big deal? When it comes to cocks like BL, women are and always will be cunts.” Well, there’s not much I can do about it. But, regardless of who is influenced more than whom (and I’m not contesting this point), to suggest that this should only be looked at through the prism of how it affects women is rather narrow-minded.

            None of this is to really get into whether anti-contraception attitudes are anti-woman. By your definition, as I understand it, it unavoidably is simply due to the results of the policy regardless of how it affects others. My main point of irritation here is how the male part in all of this is so often disregarded (and not just by one side).

        • kenB says:

          If the effect is much greater for women, then men trying to decide on policies about it is basically illegitimate.

          Yes, and people who aren’t taxpayers shouldn’t have any say in government taxing or spending policy. And only soldiers should decide when we go to war. Right?

          • Kelly says:

            I don’t think that’s a fair analogy. I think this one is:

            It is beneficial to our society that women, despite the risks to their personal health and well-being, voluntarily become pregnant and give birth in order to ensure the continuation of our culture/civilization/human race.

            It is also beneficial to our society that citizens, despite the risks to their personal health and well-being, voluntarily serve as fire fighters in order to ensure the safety of the general population.

            Contraception provides the women personally doing the risk-taking the ability to manage those risks as they see fit, just as personal protective equipment, such as fire-resistant jackets, pants, and gloves, provide firefighters personally doing the risk-taking the ability to manage those risks as they see fit.

            A man attempting to dictate the availability and/or use of contraception for women is as absurd as an inexperienced, untrained civilian attempting to dictate the availability and/or use of fire-resistant clothing for firefighters.

            Finally, on a personal note, I have both served my country as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot during two combat deployments and given birth to a healthy baby who will, with any luck, eventually be a productive member of society.

            I think a man ought to tell me his thoughts on whether I should have access to contraception during my childbearing years as much as I think a civilian should tell me his thoughts on whether I should have access to my helmet, flame-resistant flight suit, steel toed boots, flak jacket, and 9mm during my combat deployments.

          • kenb says:

            Well, Michael seemed to be stipulating a general rule, so I wanted to test the extent of its applicability.

            Re your comment: I’m a father of two, now college-age, and I was very involved in their upbringing (not to mention their conception). It’s true that for 9-10 months between conception and birth, my role was limited to financial and emotional support, but after that, I don’t think I was any less responsible than my wife for their well-being. When you say that contraception and family planning are women’s issues, you’re basically writing me out of the equation and saying that child-rearing is women’s work.

            As Will says, this frame would’ve been more justified prior to modern times, but it doesn’t fit our modern notions of gender roles in parenting.

          • Kelly says:

            “When you say that contraception and family planning are women’s issues, you’re basically writing me out of the equation and saying that child-rearing is women’s work.”

            Nope. Saying that women alone should be able to effectively choose for themselves when to assume the physical risks of pregnancy, since they alone are the ones doing the risking, implies nothing about the role of men as fathers. My argument has to do with the bodily integrity of women, not gender-based social roles.

            I’m saying that pregnancy (those 9-10 months that you mention as a seemingly insignificant aside (and by the way, I guess your wife didn’t breastfeed? Suffer any long-term pregnancy complications that lasted longer than 9-10 months? Like infection, pain during sex, depressed libido, urinary or fecal incontinence, postpartum depression or psychosis, increased postpartum migraine headaches, kidney damage, blood clot disorders, diabetes, or uterine fibroids? Lucky her.)) is physically dangerous for women. Women can be injured and/or killed by pregnancy and childbirth, just as search-and-rescue military helicopter pilots can be injured and/or killed by fiery crashes when their aircraft gets hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

            My only point here is that someone who doesn’t risk death from pregnancy or combat probably shouldn’t presume to pontificate about whether things that make those activities safer for those performing them should or should not be available.

            Soldiers shouldn’t decide when we go to war, but soldiers should decide when they should or should not wear bullet proof vests.

            I’m not making any arguments about child-rearing, and I don’t think a position on the availability of contraception implies anything about a position on child rearing. I do know, however, that the most current census data would not back up your suggestion that the work of child-rearing in “modern” society is equitable between the genders. If it was in your household, bully for you, your wife, and your kids, but for most of America, it’s still women who do the lion’s share of childcare.

  9. Kelly says:

    I suppose the other way, besides being a single woman opposed to contraception for your own self, that being anti-contraception would not constitute being anti-woman is if you would consider a reality in which all women categorically refuse vaginal sex with men to be an acceptable outcome.

    If you care about the health and safety of women, and you expect women to have heterosexual relationships with men, there has to be a way for women to protect themselves from the risks of pregnancy if they choose to do so.

  10. Will H. says:

    Put it in her butt and there won’t be any issue.

  11. Will H. says:

    Tell me truthfully that you’ve never put it there before, and there won’t be any issue.