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|March 19-25, 2009
Back to Letters
A step toward sanity
by Pamela White
It’s hard to believe that in 2009 the Colorado legislature should be embroiled in a debate about something as commonplace and beneficial as contraception. It’s even harder to believe that women’s advocates are in the position of having to consider this turn of events a good thing. But thanks to last year’s ill-conceived Amendment 48, this is where we are.
Amendment 48 was the bright idea of Kristi Burton, a 20-year-old evangelical Christian, who thought it might be nifty if the state constitution were amended to give full rights to a fertilized human egg. Voters decisively trounced the measure last November, with 27 percent of the state’s voters agreeing with Burton that a zygote merits “personhood.” If approved and upheld in the courts, Amendment 48 would have outlawed all abortions, some fertility treatments, embryonic stem cell research and some forms of contraception, including the intrauterine device (IUD), ordinary birth control pills and emergency contraception.
Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, has long advocated for a woman’s right to control what happens inside her body. In the wake of Amendment 48, Boyd felt that something needed to be done to clear the waters that Amendment 48 tried to muddy.
“It’s important that we clarify in the state law exactly what a contraceptive is,” Boyd says. “In the future then, if some of the same issues come up that came up in Amendment 48, it’s very clear what contraceptives are and that contraception is used to prevent pregnancy.”
With that goal in mind, Boyd introduced Senate Bill 225, which defines contraception as “a medically acceptable drug, device or procedure used to prevent pregnancy.”
“The key words are ‘used to prevent pregnancy,’” Boyd says.
These words are important because a small minority of religious fundamentalists insist that “life” begins the moment an egg is fertilized. Because birth-control pills, emergency contraception and IUDs prevent pregnancy in part by making the uterus inhospitable to fertilized eggs, they claim these contraceptives are “abortifacients,” i.e., drugs or devices that cause abortions.
Their notions are at odds with state law, which relies on the medical definition of pregnancy, asserting that a pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg implants in a woman’s uterus. A woman who isn’t yet pregnant cannot have an abortion. Therefore if contraceptives are drugs or devices that prevent pregnancy, they are by definition not abortifacients.
“It’s very clear what a contraceptive is,” Boyd says. “It’s used to prevent pregnancy. What they want to get into is an entirely different argument about when life begins… They don’t like the definition of pregnancy in state law, which is the medical definition, and they want to insert their own. In many cases, it’s a faith-based kind of a definition. Yes, an egg and a sperm have joined, but realistically the estimate is that at least half the time those fertilized eggs don’t implant naturally.”
That’s right. Even without contraception, an estimated 60 to 80 percent of fertilized eggs fail to implant and leave a woman’s body with her menstrual flow. Those who believe a fertilized egg is a “person” and were ready to grant “personhood” to zygotes haven’t clarified how they propose to deal with this stubborn fact. Should every menstrual period be viewed as a time of mourning due to the possible presence of a deceased “person” on a woman’s tampons or maxi-pads?
I ask Boyd what she thinks. Should a woman who has a period hold a funeral and bury her used feminine-hygiene products in a cemetery?
“Or go searching through the sewers for fertilized eggs?” she asks in turn. “That’s just crazy. That’s why we wanted to put this definition in the statute so it’s very clear.”
But will SB-225 accomplish what Boyd hopes to accomplish?
“It would not prevent anybody from going to the ballot with something like Amendment 48, but what it would do is at least clarify the definition of contraception so that contraception would not be able to get lumped in with other drugs and devices that do other things, like [RU-486].”
The bill passed the Senate on a 24-to-11 vote, with a few Republicans crossing aisles to vote in favor of the bill, while other Republicans took the opportunity to denounce birth control pills as murder. This week, the House version of the bill passed out of the Health and Human Services Committee. It now goes to the House floor for debate.
Boyd says she expects the bill to pass.
If it does, it will be a step toward regaining sanity in the abortion debate, which has veered toward insensible extremes in recent years, thanks to religious fanatics who have demonstrated repeatedly that they’re more concerned with controlling women’s sexuality than preserving the dignity of human life.
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