The state of birth control

The United States Supreme Court ruled in the 1972 case Eisenstadt v. Baird that unmarried people could have legal access to birth control. Now, almost 50 years later, the Supreme Court is deciding another case that could have ramifications for birth control: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

What is birth control? Is abortion birth control? If the laws governing birth control change, will that impact access to and the types of birth control available in Minnesota? Many common methods of birth control haven’t changed much since their legalization – condoms, for example – but many methods have, including IUDs and the pill.  

Host Angela Davis took a close look at the state of birth control in Minnesota, including its history and its future, with Dr. Sarah Trazler, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood North Central States, and Jill Hasday, a law professor from the University of Minnesota.

What is birth control? 

Simply put, birth control is any method, medication, procedure or behavior that prevents pregnancy. There is a variety available, all of which work differently and have different effectiveness: condoms, pills or medication, IUDs and surgical methods. 

There are options for both men and women; however, options for those who produce sperm are limited while options for those who can become pregnant are copious. For women, most options are hormonal, which is not the case for men. This results in most of the “worry” being placed on women. 

So, is abortion considered birth control? The short answer: no. 

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By medical definition, birth control is something that prevents pregnancy, and almost all abortions are actions of ending unplanned pregnancies. For that reason, law considers abortion and birth control as distinct subjects. 

At this moment, birth control is legal in Minnesota. But how did we get to this point? 

In 1965, the Supreme Court recognized the constitutional right to privacy so that married people could access contraceptives in Griswold v. Connecticut. This meant that states could not ban married people from accessing birth control. 

12 years later, the supreme court extended the previous ruling to unmarried people in Eisenstadt v. Baird. So, the state could not prohibit adults from using birth control. 

Law has such a large say in birth control for two reasons: promotion of immorality and control of women. 

A common argument for increasing access to birth control is that it prompts immoral behaviors like sex outside of marriage or sex for pleasure without a desire for pregnancy. However, Dr. Trazler counters this, saying that in many of the conversations she has had with patients regarding birth control, the issue of morality rarely plays a role, and rather, discussions of life plans and bodily autonomy dominate. 

Debates centering on access to birth control often coincide with debates about women’s role in society. By giving women easy access to birth control, they will have more personal control over if, when or how they become pregnant. Is that too much choice for a woman? Some believe so. 

Is birth control a matter of public health? 

Yes. There are many reasons to explain why someone would want to prevent an unplanned pregnancy. 

Just because there is access to birth control does not mean it is easily accessible. Not so much in Minnesota, specifically, but in the United States, there is a lack of access to quality birth control. Most unintended pregnancies occur in communities that lack access to birth control: marginalized communities, people of color, rural communities, indigenous communities, communities that lack access to quality healthcare overall. 

Prior to the Affordable Care Act, birth control was outrageously expensive; however, it is now more accessible as many insurance plans include free access to certain forms of it. 

Obstacles do remain, though. New contraceptives are not automatically covered. Some plans discourage long term birth control methods. Religious organizations and employers can refuse to offer birth control in insurance plans. And many people still remain uninsured; therefore, they do not benefit from the Affordable Care Act.  

Hasday admitted that in theory, people have the freedom to obtain birth control, but in reality, it is only freedom if it is affordable. 

Birth Control and Men 

Laura from New Hope, Minn., called into MPR and asked if there were any instances in which men’s bodies have been policed as women’s are. The answer: no. 

But Dr. Trazler shared that there are several birth control methods for men currently in development, and it is possible that people can see a pill for men in this lifetime. The main obstacle: to decrease sperm count in men, their testosterone level also has to decrease which is highly undesirable for most men. 

Minors and Birth Control

There is no age restriction on those interested in buying condoms. Additionally, Minnesota law says that any person under 18 years of age can get a prescription for birth control without parental consent, and health care providers may inform minors’ parents but are not required to do so. 

Dr. Trazler recommends that minors who are interested in birth control should be counseled in the same way as any other patient would be. She explained that most teenagers default to the pill but that is worth a conversation because there is a lot of user failure with the pill. Discussion of lifestyle, future plans and life goals will help minors be confident that they are choosing the best form of birth control for them. 

Trazler added that education is crucial for young people. Ensuring that teenagers have access to science and evidence based research on how their bodies work and how to prevent pregnancies and STIs is critical in ensuring that the next generation is able to make the proper decisions for themselves. 

Use the audio player above to listen to the whole conversation. 

Guests: 

  • Dr. Sarah Traxler is the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood North Central States

  • Jill Hasday is a law professor at the University of Minnesota