Contraceptives: the real measure of inequality

Aside from having my basic human needs met, what is the greatest freedom I have?

Since 2011, when I had my first child, my first thought when I see my belly is always gratitude.

Belly crop

I’m grateful that I was able to grow two healthy babies. I’m humbled that I got to choose when I conceived [roughly!] and with whom.

I’m so, so grateful to my mum for being into homebirth so I knew that was a possibility, and so honored that Anki was our midwife, and both kids born into water at home.

And I’m delighted that I have chosen to close that chapter, and that Haakon has a vasectomy, leaving us completely free and easy with regards to contraception [I’ll talk about the merits of vasectomy in a later blog].

No more wondering when a period is later than usual if a baby is the reason.

No more hypothetical moral grappling – if I were pregnant, would I abort?

I see this access and the ability to control when, and if, to have kids, as the ultimate luxury, and one humans have not been enjoying for very long.

I don’t care how many babies people have, when they have them, or if they don’t, or if they have them with many different partners, or a same sex partner, or raise them alone.

But now that we have such amazing options for contraception, I care very much about people only having babies that they want.

According to the US census website, the world population is 7.6 billion as of May 2018, and growing by about 180,000 per day.

And the United Nations Word Population fund says that 214 million women in the developing world who want to prevent pregnancy don’t have access to contraceptives.

We should want to fix that, because parenting is not for the faint of heart – a friend’s toddler once threw her head back and broke her mother’s nose during a tantrum. Most of us parents have cleaned a log of poop out of a pair of pants at least once.

Having and raising a child takes resources – food, clothing, money or bartering power. But it also requires support, a community, social capital.

If you have no resources, especially social resources, having a baby will not magically make them appear. And we need those resources – every one of us has felt squeezed dry at some point by the emotional demands of parenting.

Knowing this, sexually active women everywhere spend hours, weeks and months of their lives caught up with trying not to get pregnant.

More and more men are taking responsibility for not making babies, but since the evidence is written on a woman’s body she is often the most invested in preventing pregnancy.

In both of my homes, the US and Australia, people generally have pretty good access to contraceptives, whether drugstore condoms or an IUD, implant or vasectomy.

But access doesn’t necessarily trump culture. Although contraceptives are technically available in white, rural America, where I live, they often remain just out of reach of those who really need them – young people.

A conservation, religious undertone means sex ed leans towards teaching abstinence.

I just got back from a walk to the park, where I bumped into Tyran, who is not quite 21 and has two sons – a  four year old and an eighteen month old.

I asked her about her first pregnancy, and how that came about, how she felt about it.

“I was 14 when I got pregnant, and I had Lovell when I was 15,” Tyran said.

But Tyran wasn’t naive about getting pregnant:

“Oh, I knew how it [sex] worked, my mom told me, and we had sex ed at school,” she said “they didn’t give us condoms though, I think that would be good, if there was a clinic you could get free condoms, if they put them in our hands.”

Thinking back to being 14 myself, and remembering not being able to see past a week, I asked her if she just didn’t care.

“Yeah, I think that was it. In that moment I just didn’t care, I thought I loved him.”

Tyran, with help from her mom, the grandparents of her kids, and her youngest son’s dad, who pays some child support and has custody of both kids whenever he can, has fulfilled the American dream.

Work hard, fight adversity, not get an abortion.

Of her youngest child, Tyran said:

“His dad is really cool. A nice guy. We got married after 3 months because everyone said to me ‘why not, he loves Lovell,’ and I thought maybe god was giving me this, a family,”

She gestured to her youngest son, in his stroller, as we walked.

“But he [god] was really just giving me another kid,” she said, and smiled and stopped to adjust her son’s visor “he was conceived on a pull out couch. That’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?”

Tyran plainly loves her kids.. She sent me this picture of her sons, Lovell and Kale:

lovell and kale

Although Tyran was close to getting the contraceptives she needed, and turned a hard situation into a positive one, in some places, getting and using contraceptives effectively is an even bigger hurdle.

A family friend and doctor of sociology, Richard Barcham, told me a bit about the availability of contraceptives in Papua New Guinea, where he has worked on and off since 2000.

According to Richard, people in PNG are generally not shy about talking about sex and contraception, and tend towards being “pretty promiscuous.”

The biggest hurdle in getting contraception to those who want it, he said, is the power men have over women.

“The status of women is very low,” Richard wrote in an e mail “a large family is a big loyal workforce for a man to build prosperity, so men sometimes have multiple wives.”

Richard has heard women say they carry condoms in case of rape: he said rape is “gut-churningly and bizarrely common.”

Although the PNG government offers what it can by way of health services, most people have never seen a doctor, Richard wrote.

Churches and other aid groups provide better and more healthcare than local services, and because of religious conflicts, these groups often don’t offer contraceptives.

If a woman is offered long term contraceptive options, like an injection or implant of hormone birth control, often her husband must give permission, and “this can be a problem,” Richard said.

Richard told a story about working with a non profit group called Touching the Untouchables, who aim to bring health care to people in the highlands of PNG, only accessible by one road, which is “a bit dangerous,” because of road accidents and highway robbers.
“We often traveled in a District ‘ambulance’,” Richard said  “really a Toyota troop carrier and not anything like an ambulance at all. I recall on one occasion travelling in the front of such a vehicle,  with a health worker and the driver, while a group of village volunteers, NGO staff and their cargoes bounced around in the back. The health worker had boxes of stuff on her lap, and every time we passed a group of people standing by the road she would pass handfuls across to the driver. Behind us, people scrambled in our dust to pick up these tossed treats. On closer inspection, the contents of the boxes turned out to be condoms.”
A rising awareness in PNG of using condoms to prevent HIV, as well as to control pregnancy has made their use more popular. Richard sent me this link about a recent donation of 120,000 condoms to PNG.
The best part? every one of those condoms is strawberry scented!

 

If you appreciate your freedom with family planning, and want to gift that to another person, some organizations that provide contraceptive aid in the US and internationally are:

The United Nations Population Fund 

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Planned Parenthood

Pathfinder International

 

 

 

 

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