Thanks, Birth Control

I recently had the opportunity to discuss work-life issues with a dozen middle-class mothers, mostly in their 30s, who live in northern Virginia. Almost all are employed outside the home, their occupations ranging from emergency medical technician to engineer.

In the community room of a local church, they talked about options: Should they work full-time or part-time? Outside the home or at home? How should they space their children so they could do everything they wanted to do? If they didn't have to work for financial reasons, would they choose to do so anyway?

Most of them indicated they would work, at least part-time, especially if the job involved doing something they liked. One woman, married to an attorney, said she doesn't have to work but enjoys being a general house manager for a wealthy couple. The job pays well and allows her to keep a nanny to take care of her child.

"We don't need the money but I feel I have to do this," she said.

One noteworthy thing about the discussion was this: None of them mentioned what, arguably more than anything else, allows them to craft the lives they want. That is safe, effective contraception.

The remarkable improvements in contraception since their mothers started working - advances in variety, availability, cost and most important, reliability -- are by now, for this generation of women, unremarkable. Is that good or bad? Both, I think.

It's good because we older women would not want younger women to have to go through what we did in order to avoid pregnancy. Today's contraception may seem routine because they and so many women they know use it. Hurrah for that.

Still, many women are reluctant to talk about birth control. Maybe they fear it will lead to a conversation about their personal sex lives. Or, maybe they're afraid of encountering criticism from political conservatives and others who criticize affordable or free birth control as symbols of what's wrong with America.

The still-too-close-to call election of a new attorney general in Virginia -- former State Sen. Mark Obenshain, who supported a "personhood bill" that would, in effect, ban the birth control pill and other popular forms of contraception -- indicates that there are more critics of birth control out there than some people assume. Another example in the Old Dominion is Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia who, as attorney general, also supported the personhood bill. He lost his bid to become governor of Virginia, but only barely.

How can anyone who opposes abortion also oppose birth control? As more women use birth control, rates of unplanned pregnancy and abortion go down. The general public knows this: 7 out of 10 say policymakers who are opposed to abortion should strongly support birth control.

Here's another puzzle: How can people be against something that nine out of 10 women have used at some point in their lives? How do men think their wives and wives' friends became attorneys and continue to practice law? How did their daughters graduate from Brown or Wellesley or the University of Maryland without a baby in tow?

In 1995, after 13 years of increasing contraception use and declining rates of unplanned pregnancy and abortion, the rates reversed, particularly among women in their 20s. Supporters of birth control blamed increased costs and a continued lack of access, particularly in rural areas of the country.

In my view, it's also possible that ongoing tirades from birth control opponents have done a guilt trip on young Americans who are sexually active or about to be. This does not mean that teens and 20-somethings won't have sex. What some will do, experience shows, is have sex without using birth control.

A woman at the church where I spoke talked about "the problem of having so many choices, to seek the best job, the best children, the best husband. There's so much pressure."

One worry she and her colleagues don't have is getting pregnant by mistake. Birth control is a seamless part of their lives: They can afford it and understand how central it is to living a well-balanced life. If only all women could enjoy that confidence while remaining vigilant that it not be taken away.

Is it too much to hope that one day, using birth control will be like getting a flu shot or taking your vitamins? Something any woman can afford -- and just does?

The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy is asking people nationwide to talk about what birth control makes possible for individuals and society. This effort, named "Thanks, Birth Control," can be done in many ways including sending a tweet using the hashtag #ThxBirthControl or posting something on Facebook.

Laura Sessions Stepp, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is a senior media fellow at the Campaign.