Thanks, Birth Control! You Have Given Women the Power to Decide Their Futures

Ginny Ehrlich, Chief Executive Officer, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy

 

As we celebrate Women’s Equality Day—the game changing anniversary of women being afforded the right to vote—it is also important to celebrate other transformational advances that have supported women. Legal access to effective contraception is one such advance, which, believe it or not, happened just over 40 years ago.

Deciding if, when, and under what circumstances to get pregnant is arguably one of the most important life decisions a woman will make. There is a reason that Bloomberg Businessweek highlighted birth control as a top economic driver for women and recognized it as one of the most transformational developments in the business sector in the last 85 years. To pile on, the CDC recognized birth control as one of the top ten public health achievements of the 20th century.

Since birth control has been made widely available, there has been a staggering increase in women’s wages, an increase in the number of female college graduates, and myriad improved family wellbeing measures. It is only since birth control was made legally available to all women that Fortune 500 companies have put female CEOs at the helm. According to a University of Michigan study published in 2012, one-third of the wage gains women have achieved since the 1960s are the result of access to oral contraceptives. Additionally, this study estimates that the decrease in the gap among men’s and women’s annual incomes between the ages of 25-49 would have been 10 percent smaller in the 1980s and 30 percent smaller in the 1990s if birth control had not been made legal.

Like millions of women of my generation and generations since, access to birth control has allowed me to live life on my own terms—both personally and professionally. Since taking the helm at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy just one year ago, I have had occasion to reflect upon the impact, advances, and perils of birth control access. We are at a critical juncture. On one hand, we have unparalleled access to a breadth of safe, effective, and free (for most) methods of birth control. National polls suggest that the overwhelming majority of people in the United States—across all political, economic, and racial/ethnic spectrums—support policies that provide adult and teen women with access to birth control. On the other hand, this majority is by and large silent on these issues. As a result, there is great risk that we will lose gains in access to family planning services and birth control, especially for women living at or below the poverty line and in rural communities.

Why? Perhaps because we have forgotten that birth control was not fully legalized until 1972, and we simply take our current access for granted. Or perhaps we haven’t fully recognized the significant effects that birth control has had on the advancement of women and girls in modern day society. Or perhaps we just aren’t all that comfortable talking about birth control, despite the fact that almost every adult woman uses birth control at some point in her lifetime.

We need to break the silence. Despite historical progress, one in four women still become pregnant before the age of 20, and nearly half of the births to women in their 20s are, according to the women themselves, unplanned. And the progress is uneven. Women living in poverty and women of color are significantly more likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy—not to mention continued wage gaps. We estimate that millions of women live in contraceptive deserts—places where full access to the full range of methods is not available within 60 minutes.

Birth control is not the only answer to increasing women’s equality, but it plays a key role in ensuring that women can live life on their own terms. We must also renew our commitment and catalyze a sense of urgency around the issues of women’s equality and its key drivers. So today, we ask you to join us in boldly and loudly thanking birth control for making the lives of women better. And we ask you to continue to fight for women’s equality so that all young women—no matter who they are or where they live—have the power to decide their futures.