HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Contraception and False Science

Mirror mirror on the wall: who is the dumbest one of all? President Trump has challenged his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to a battle over IQs. How silly. The real question: what is the voting public’s IQ? Are we unschooled – ignorant because an underfunded school system has not taught us logic? Or as Richard Thaler, the Nobel economist might explain, is the notion of rational man simply that – a notion? Perhaps homo economicus is floating on Wordsworth’s cloud? Maybe tribe mentality “trumps” reason: we believe what a band of people we trust tells us is true – while we reject “science” as “fake?”

The cause is immaterial; the impact is not. Some of us reject climate change as bogus; some accept the economic premise that lower taxes will bring higher revenue; some welcome proven pollutants back into our water, air, and soil.

But this “fake science/new science” approach to contraception demands special scrutiny.

What is the purpose of contraception? Ask a physician. Ask a high school student who has failed biology. Ask the legions of women who have reached for pills, diaphragms, intra-uterine devices, and patches. This is not a trick question. The purpose is to prevent pregnancy – to block that swimming sperm from reaching its alluring goal, the egg. The union of sperm and egg does not always result in pregnancy; but it happens often enough that women (and their partners) have embraced contraception. And for six years insurers under the Affordable Care Act have for the most part subsidized contraception. The intent of the Affordable Care mandate was clear: to protect women’s health. (For economists out there, the pills et al cost less than pregnancy and childbirth.)

This Administration will leave many more employers (of non-profit as well as for-profit entities, even those owned by shareholders) free to axe those subsidies on the grounds of “religious” or now “moral” objections.

A swathe of the public, most notably the Little Sisters of the Poor, believes contraception evil: every act of intercourse between a man and a woman should be open to the possibility of a new life (unless the woman practices “natural” childbirth, thermometer in hand). This is a values judgment. We can respect that value, while object to its being foisted upon the millions who do not share it.

The Administration, though, has cloaked the fiat in absurd-science, arguing that contraception does not improve women’s health, and, in fact, may harm women.

In particular, the Administration has raised the canard that contraceptive methods carry a range of dangers; e.g., hypertension, gall bladder disease, increased risk of breast and cervical cancers, high blood pressure, liver tumors, migraines. Have some of the 55 million women who use birth control developed some of these maladies? Of course. Is birth control necessarily the cause? No double-blind clinical trials have established cause-and-effect, and most researchers suggest the benefits far outweigh the risks. After all, pregnancy and childbirth (particularly an unintended pregnancy in a country with a patchy system of insurance coverage) put women’s health at risk.

Anti-abortion groups applauded the President’s initiative, though ironically access to contraception reduces the incidence of abortion. But those groups too raise false-science, citing the Affordable Care Act’s inclusion of coverage for the “morning after” pill. They liken the pill to abortion, explaining that it causes a fertilized egg to expel. Again, the science is clear: the pill prevents ovulation.

Finally, the last canard is comical: contraception exists not primarily to prevent pregnancies but to encourage promiscuity, particularly among teenagers and young adults – who, presumably when they age, will embrace either abstinence or a thermometer.

I can understand the rationale behind the Little Sisters of the Poor’s abhorrence of contraception. They see it as evil, though they themselves live lives that do not put them at risk of pregnancies, wanted or unwanted, planned or unplanned.

The Administration, though, is not simply placating religious groups, but so-called “values” voters, whom he judges a sizeable bloc. Yet among these “values” voters, I cannot understand the enthusiasm for blocking this mandate. Have they, or their friends and relatives, never had a sexual encounter where they would not have welcomed a pregnancy? As for our President, he lived a publicized life as a playboy: was he a chaste playboy? Bluntly, some of the “values” voters cheering this decision are hypocrites.

In pushing to allow employers to exclude contraception, the Administration is not protecting women’s health, but harming it. And he is cloaking the decision in false-science. All voters, whatever their values, should reject this blatant falsity.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2017

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