Professor brings birth control debate to Pitzer’s classrooms

By Phoebe Duvall

Nowadays, not a week goes by without some of the most personal aspects of our lives being discussed on national television and in the halls of Congress.  Though birth control and reproductive rights have long been wrangled over at the state level, the issues exploded onto the national scene over the past two years.  As this nationwide debate continues to seethe, Pitzer political studies professor Rachel VanSickle-Ward brings her extensive knowledge of the issues to the college, teaching a class to critically examine how this country handles reproductive rights.

VanSickle-Ward believes that the recent healthcare reforms have profoundly shaped the current debate and that the policies and rhetoric have both tangible and symbolic implications. She highlights these topics in her class and notes the importance of the debate as a whole to college students both at Pitzer and across the nation.

Called “The Battle Over Birth Control: Gendered Dimensions of the Contraception Policy Debate,” VanSickle-Ward’s political studies senior seminar examines current policies and rhetoric while placing the issues in the context of other reproductive rights matters such as breastfeeding policy, abortion, and sex education.  The class also explores the various sides of the debate as well as how it is framed in U.S. media coverage.

Among the policies that VanSickle-Ward covers in the class, and one she believes is crucial to the current debate, is the Affordable Care Act that President Obama signed into law on March 23, 2010.  This healthcare reform bill, which is being slowly phased in, requires private healthcare and insurance providers to offer birth control and other types of reproductive preventative care free of co-pay or deductible costs.  Yet she said in an interview that these reforms have spurred “a big push-back particularly from religious organizations with moral objections to providing that coverage.”

That pushback has been manifested through the conscience clause, a pivotal part of the policy controversy, VanSickle-Ward said.  The clause allows healthcare providers, pharmacists, and employers, for example, to opt out of offering birth control coverage largely on religious grounds.  This particular issue has drawn some sharp divides in Washington.

“It’s really become a partisan issue,” VanSickle-Ward said.  “Republicans have embraced the conscience clause stance and Democrats have embraced the access and women’s health stance.  It’s very politicized and high profile.”

The impacts of the current birth control policies are numerous, VanSickle-Ward asserts.  Access to birth control and other reproductive services such as abortions has been greatly restricted in recent years, and she contends that many of the ramifications of this are determined by socioeconomic class.

“In terms of family planning, it’s the poor women who are restricted the most because they may not be able to afford to have a child that they don’t want to have, and they’re the least able to determine whether or not that happens,” she said.  Many women do not have the financial resources to afford contraception or do not have easy access to clinics.  In these cases, VanSickle-Ward said, requiring employers to offer birth control coverage can make an enormous difference.

She also argues that the rhetoric in the reproductive rights debate has a symbolic impact – one that she finds problematic: “A lot of the debate goes beyond the particular politics at hand and is trying to police women’s bodies as well as their sexuality.”

VanSickle-Ward also points out that these topics, though national in scope, are highly relevant to the Pitzer community and to college students in general.  “The obvious issue is that a lot of college students have sex, and a lot of them probably want to have protection,” she said.  “I think that they may or may not know that in some cases their ability to access it could be imperiled.”

The issues brought up by the contraceptives debate matter to college students in a more theoretical sense as well, VanSickle-Ward believes. “No matter where you stand, these issues touch upon how we think about men’s and women’s roles more generally and about what we expect of our government,” she said.  “It makes you think about the appropriate relationship between the citizen and the government, issues of religious freedom, big picture stuff like that.”

However, VanSickle-Ward feels that these issues should not remain solely classroom discussion material.  She emphasizes that students should keep up with the news and policy developments to inform their opinions.  She also notes that there are a myriad of opportunities to work with advocacy groups on both sides of the debate, for example, reproductive health clinics or religious organizations.  Finally, “College students can take what they know to the voting booth and to their conversations with others who may not share their opinions,” she said.  “Informed dialogue is important as well as advocacy.”

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