Tenth in a series for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence by John Coonrod, PhD. Photo: iStock.com/araoraor

December 4, 2020 – On this day in 1961, Britain’s National Health Service first made oral contraception available. Despite opposition from the Catholic Church and some other religious groups, a 2012 study by the Guttmacher Institute found that 99% of all women of reproductive age who have ever had sex—including 98% of Catholic women—have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning.

A Harvard Study in 2002 demonstrated the “power of the pill” to give women greater power over their careers and marriage decisions.

Despite near universal acceptance by women – and demand worldwide that exceeds supply – suddenly during the 2012 US Presidential Campaign, some conservative politicians began saying that contraception is controversial. Melinda French Gates, a lifelong Catholic, expressed shock that contraception could possibly still be controversial. In her keynote address at the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning, she stated: “Helping women gain access to contraceptives saves lives. It improves the health of mothers and children. It increases children’s school attendance. It leads to more prosperous families. At the national level, it has even been linked to GDP growth.” And she announced an increase of her foundation’s commitment to family planning to $1 billion by 2020.

That 2012 Summit launched the Family Planning 2020 (FP2020) Campaign with a goal of reaching 120 million additional users of modern contraceptives in its 69 focus countries. As of July 2019, there were 53 million additional users overall, and 9 million additional in just the previous 12 months.

The political controversy around contraception is the tip of a more complex and deadly iceberg. The underlying issue is the patriarchal mindset that believes, at some level, that women are the property of men and that they do not have sexual and reproductive health rights. This same mindset underlies the belief that men have the “right” to beat their wives.

There are studies that show that gender-based violence (GBV) leads women to not use contraception – leading to more unwanted pregnancies – which can lead to unsafe abortions. There are 25 million unsafe each year. Research in Vietnam explores this pathway – including the fact that unsafe abortions accounted for 11% of the deaths of women of childbearing age.

Lack of contraception IS violent. The Guttmacher-Lancet Commission reported “The most recent data show that fully meeting the need for modern contraception in developing regions and ensuring that pregnant women and their newborns receive essential care would result in the following declines from 2017 levels: 67 million fewer unintended pregnancies (75% decline), 2.2 million fewer newborn deaths (80% decline) and 224,000 fewer maternal deaths (73% decline).”

The World Health Organization, UNWomen and UNFPA have drafted an addendum to their clinical handbook on health care for women subjected to GBV, empowering contraception providers to detect the warning signs of GBV.

In 2018, the 38th Session of the Human Rights Council achieved major international progress for women and girls. The Council recognized the right to sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) for the first time ever in a Geneva or UN politically-negotiated document. It urges universal access to evidence-based comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services. And there were also resolutions for the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM) and for accelerating efforts to eliminate violence against women and girls.

As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Overcoming patriarchy – and the violence and destruction it causes – involves transforming social conditions that have been deeply entrenched for thousands of years. We are fortunate to be living at a moment when – despite some dramatic patriarchal backlash – the efforts of so many courageous feminist leaders are finally resulting in progress towards gender justice.