I first learned about Plan B (a.k.a. the morning-after pill) in 2009. I was 17 years old and accompanying a male friend to his STD screening at a Planned Parenthood in Canoga Park, not far from where I grew up in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. After a few cancellations, I snagged an appointment of my own. The receptionist asked me about the purpose of my visit; I mumbled something about “just seeing what’s up” and waited my turn.
At the time, my sex life wasn’t fully sleepy, but it wasn’t wide-awake either. Once behind closed doors, I asked the clinician if I could have contracted an STD through a blistered tongue or a concert-venue toilet seat. She scoffed at my hypochondriac tendencies, advised me to always go against the grain while shaving and gave me a couple packages of Plan B (as well as a year’s worth of generic birth control). Leaving the office, I felt satisfied by my new, if mostly theoretical, sexual agency and the office’s fast-paced generosity. Stuffing birth control into my bag felt similar to when, as a little girl, I would search my house for items to fill up my purse before heading out on errands with my mom: gum, mints, lipstick, mirror, pen, perfume and now, The Pill—official lady stuff.
Before this visit, my friends and I barely knew what the morning-after pill was, let alone that we could get it without asking. But as a Riot Grrrl wannabe and a student at a humanities high school with a 10-week “Gender Unit,” I knew I was benefiting from a recent, progressive change in health care policy. In March 2009, just a few months earlier, a judge had ordered the FDA to allow any woman 17 or older to get Plan B over-the-counter, without parental consent. In 2013, the FDA’s policy became even more inclusive: All women of “child-bearing potential,” regardless of age, would now be able to purchase Plan B over-the-counter at pharmacies.
For me, in progressive California, this made acquiring free emergency contraceptives as easy as scoring flavored lip gloss from CVS and high-definition glitter from Michaels Arts & Crafts. My teenage self considered both of these items much more essential than birth control. But in Red States like Oklahoma, where pro-life lawmakers attempted to reinstate the FDA’s pre-2009 restrictions on Plan B as recently as January, those same Planned Parenthood swag bags are still bitterly politicized as a weapon in the “War on Women.” And in a way, the same holds true for the high-definition glitter.
Here I’m referring to the Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby, which operates 615 stores in 47 states and specializes in “needle art” and “papercrafting” supplies. Like Michaels Arts & Crafts, Hobby Lobby carries all 12 shades of Martha Stewart’s line of fine-grained, iridescent glitter. Unlike Hobby Lobby, Michaels isn’t involved in a potentially horrifying, precedent-setting Supreme Court case.
Recently, Hobby Lobby has led the political crusade against the Affordable Care Act’s emergency-contraception coverage mandate. David Green, the company’s evangelical CEO, is contesting Hobby Lobby’s legal obligation to provide insurance coverage for the types of birth control he deems abortifacient.
“Being Christians, we don’t pay for drugs that might cause abortions, which means that we don’t cover emergency contraception, the morning-after pill or the week-after pill,” Green wrote in a USA Today column close to two years ago.
While he’s fine with his company’s insurance paying for The Pill, he considers IUDs and Plan B—used occasionally to prevent pregnancy (not end it) as many as five days after sex—an assault on his faith and Hobby Lobby’s values, a $3.3-billion company run “in harmony with God’s laws.”
What surprised me most about the case wasn’t that Green and his lawyers have managed to bring their grievances all the way to the Supreme Court, although that fact continues to shock me. It’s how little seemingly anyone knows about the birth-control options Green is railing against, strengthening his ability to vacantly manipulate public discourse on the topic. Green’s major “abortion-causing” talking points suggest he doesn’t know much about what IUDs and Plan B actually do, but in investigating the topic, I realized neither do many of the intelligent, self-described feminists I know.
Millions of American women are on The Pill, but plenty don’t pop it happily. “Dude, I hate birth control pills,"one young woman told me—her friends echoing her in a chorus of "I KNOW!"—when I began polling the women I know about their birth-control experiences. They complained about crying all the time, a waning libido and perpetually throbbing breasts (and not in a hot way). Many of them were handed The Pill once their mothers spotted their first hickey. Doctors prescribed others, like me, birth-control pills at the first mention of sex. There was little talk of side effects, and even less talk about other options like IUDs or Plan B. "It’s something that’s put in the uterus that blocks sperm from going to fallopian tubes … I think?” a 21-year-old friend answered when I asked her if she knew how IUDs work.
“It’s a little thingy they put up your vagina, probably somewhere around your reproductive organs, and it releases hormones or blocks hormones,” added a 21-year-old graduate in women’s studies, who was confident that she got the gist of it. “Either way it stops you from getting pregnant.”
In fact, when it comes to effectiveness, IUDs are Queen: Only 1 out of 100 women with an IUD becomes pregnant each year (as opposed to 9 out of 100 and 18 out of 100 for The Pill and condom-only users, respectively). Their efficacy doesn’t require remembering a pill, and the copper varieties present women with a non-hormonal birth-control option. All of which explains why they’re the most popular form of birth control in the world. For the uninsured, IUDs can be pricey (anywhere from $500 to $1,000), but their long-term effectiveness (up to 12 years after insertion) saves women money in the long run.
Despite such promising statistics, Hobby Lobby conservatives have seized on one fact about IUDs as evidence for their resistance: Some copper IUDs (like ParaGard) can be inserted up to five days after unprotected sex to prevent a pregnancy from taking place after a birth-control mishap, similar to how Plan B and Ella work. All of these emergency interventions make sure pregnancies never happen by keeping sperm from reaching ready eggs or deterring a fertilized egg from attaching in the womb. For scientists, this is how you prevent pregnancy. For Green and his crew, this is one of the ways you abort a pregnancy.
Green’s case unfairly shuns IUDs as exotic and extreme, further obfuscating many Americans’ already imperfect understanding of them. IUDs received a lot of bad press in the 1970s and 1980s, when a faulty model (the Dalkon Shield) was linked to miscarriage and disease. The narrative surrounding IUDs became so negative that the United States stopped manufacturing them—the only country in the world to do so. (All the while, their popularity around the rest of the world only grew.)
Since the U.S. pharmaceutical industry began to re-market IUDs more than a decade ago, more and more American women are slowly making the switch: A Guttmacher study reports that the percentage of IUD (and other implant) users in the United States more than tripled (from 2.4 percent to 8.5 percent) in 2009. The Pill, however, still remains the most common form of birth control.
I haven’t taken The Pill since my big-girl experiment at Planned Parenthood five years ago. I used it daily for less than a week before deciding my nightly skincare routine was enough to worry about. I get plenty of hormones from the meat I eat and the milk in the lattes I drink. Too many of my most responsible friends got pregnant on The Pill for me to be convinced of its utility. Plus, the idea of being any more emotional than I already am is frightening. I don’t have an IUD, but if I were in a relationship, I might consider getting one. And if I did, I wouldn’t believe I was engaging in a permanent series of mini-abortions, as Hobby Lobby jargon suggests.
I think many other women would use IUDs as well—especially if the public discourse about them were more positive. But that’s what happens when a store that sells scrapbooking supplies guides national conversation on contraception, asking women and scientists to step aside as they proselytize.
Green is entitled to his own beliefs about conception and contraception; his religion endows him with the right to believe what some of us (including scientists) might consider wrong. But when the Supreme Court decides the Hobby Lobby case in the next few days, it could set a precedent that grants America’s largest companies legal exemptions because of its stakeholders own religious particularities—dangerous waters to wade.
“The government’s job should be to ensure proper education about this stuff, which they’re not doing,” a 16-year-old girl I know told me over the phone. “I don’t know what emergency contraception is, or what my rights to it are,” she said, with a laugh. “Can I Google it now?”
This is the problem. As young women, we deserve our contraceptive questions answered by medical experts, not by corporate executives. The conversation Hobby Lobby has ignited is in itself a blessing, bringing these issues to the forefront of our collective consciousness. However, if successful, Hobby Lobby’s efforts will effectively condemn both our country’s women and our reproductive health specialists.
Tierney Finster is a writer and actress based in Los Angeles.