The recent Health and Human Services mandate and the ensuing debate appear to have pitted religious-liberty claims against women’s health. But because religious leaders (rightly) focused on the need for a religious exemption, it may appear to some observers that they are unable to articulate a reasoned and weighty response to the administration’s claim that contraceptives are essential to women’s health and well-being.
The Obama administration is wrong on this score as well, and the substantive case needs to be made: The contraceptive revolution has failed to be the unmitigated boon to women or to society that it was hyped up to be.
For the past 50 years, the Pill has demonstrably assisted women — especially college-educated, career-minded women — in the timing of pregnancies and the delay of marriage. But the Pill also ushered in an era of unprecedented (and, as things turned out, unwarranted) confidence that sex could be pursued without risk — most notably, outside of long-term committed relationships.
The Pill, together with abortion as backup, appeared to provide full insurance against pregnancy risks. But as economists well know, full insurance tends to induce greater risk-taking: As people perceive sex to be safer, they pursue more of it. This applies especially to people who would otherwise be most vulnerable to the risks of unwanted pregnancy: the young, the unmarried, and those unable to care for a child. While a tight causal argument is difficult to make, correlations alone do not augur in favor of the Pill: The rapidly increasing sexual activity of the Pill era correlates with a staggering increase in non-marital births — less than 5 percent of births in 1960 were to unmarried mothers, compared with roughly 40 percent today. A counterintuitive result, perhaps, but a fairly human one nonetheless.
And this points to an unresolved difficulty with the contraceptive revolution, which was supposed to serve women above all: Women on the whole disproportionately bear the burden of the new sexual regime. They are expected to dose themselves with a Group 1 carcinogen for approximately two-thirds of their fertile years. They sustain greater emotional costs from casual sex. They are at greater risk of contracting STDs and disproportionately suffer from their long-term consequences, such as cervical cancer and fertility loss.And even after 50 years with the Pill, as many as half of all pregnancies are still unintended. Women, not men, must make the heart-wrenching choice between abortion, reckoned a tragic outcome even by its supporters, and bearing a child with little to no paternal support. After all, since children were negotiated out of the bargain by the availability of contraception and abortion, men have secured a strong rationale to simply ignore or reject pregnancies that result from uncommitted sexual relations. Nobel-laureate economist George Akerlof predicted nearly two decades ago that this would lead directly to the feminization of poverty, as it ruefully has.
These traumas take their toll. A stunning paper by leading labor economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers documented recently that women’s self-reported happiness has declined both overall, and relative to that of men, since the early 1970s. Where women used to report higher happiness than men, they now report less. Stevenson and Wolfers ask, “Did men garner a disproportionate share of the benefits of the women’s movement?” Good question indeed. One may well wonder if the bargain advocated by the feminist elites has made much sense in the end: Were gains for elite women purchased with the currency of a new sexual ethic that has damaged women more generally?