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Finn McRedmond: It is cruel to dress birth control up as freedom-enhancing for all women

Liberty must afford women the economic capacity to have children if they want

It came as a surprise to many of my friends in London that contraception will only be made free for women between the ages of 17-25 from August 2022. The incredulous responses I was met with when I raised the news from the budget speaks much to Ireland’s slow pace in the realm of reproductive freedom.

Though of course that is something all too familiar to the women of Ireland, considering the only-recent legalisation of abortion, as just one example.

Shifting cultural tides are to thank for these crucial developments in reproductive rights. It is a no-brainer that access to birth control should not be limited to the affluent. That would run counter to everything we are supposed to hold dear in a liberal society: values of equality, justice and freedom.

But naturally many have found reason to be dissatisfied with the measures. Though the religious opposition is not one to concern us. It is totally within the rights of those who hold such religious and ethical beliefs. Rather, some have suggested the measures do not go far enough.


Reproductive freedom exceeds the realms of pure policy and hoves into the purview of moral and ethical philosophy

Why, for example, is it only limited to 17-25 year olds? At the age of 26, not many of my friends have intentions of starting a family any time soon.

But there is an easy riposte. The measure is intended as a first step. And it is not exactly within the nature of this government to introduce radical, sweeping policy. To expect otherwise would locate you far beyond the realms of reality.

Is there a fairer criticism? That reserving free birth control solely for women is reflective of an entrenched sexism that sees pregnancy-prevention as just the woman’s responsibility? It does not seem equitable that women suffer the majority of the burden of contraception.

Sure. But, of course, there is no long-term reversible birth control currently available to men, compared to the litany of options available to women. Unfortunately solving that particular societal ill – a product of women long being disadvantaged in medical treatment – is not within the remit of the budgetary architecture. And it is certainly beyond the scope of Paschal Donohue’s brief to right decades of contraceptive injustices.

Childcare costs

But there is something more pernicious that underlies all of this. When faced with progress, the impulse to enumerate all the ways in which the policy is insufficiently progressive strikes me as a uniquely uncharitable and counterproductive impulse. Any progress is good.

But the question of reproductive freedom exceeds the realms of pure policy and hoves into the purview of moral and ethical philosophy.

The very welcome measure of free contraception does not, in fact, succeed in granting every woman with absolute reproductive freedom. And to present it as doing so is dishonest.

It has become an odd feature of liberal discourse to suggest birth control is an effective and desirable method of reducing childhood poverty

Because, as Matthew Breunig argued in the Los Angeles Times, reproductive freedom is not solely about the ability to prevent conception, but it is also about affording all women the economic capacity to have children if they want to.

Based on findings from the OECD this year, Ireland has the fourth-highest childcare costs in the world. There were good measures announced in the budget: €716 million investment in childcare, with the National Childcare Scheme subsidy also extended to children under 15.

However, Childhood Services Ireland has been one voice among many to suggest this will do little to make childcare affordable to the least advantaged.

Birth control

It ought not be thought radical to suggest that women will continue to lack reproductive freedom so long as the cost of childcare precludes anyone from starting a family on account of their financial circumstances.

Nor should we accept that the decision to have children could carry severe financial grief for anyone who decides to do so anyway. To suggest otherwise is backwards and totally at odds with what we ought to expect from a liberal society.

But it has become an odd feature of liberal discourse to suggest that birth control is an effective and desirable method of reducing childhood poverty, and preventing the entrenchment in poverty of women of a childbearing age.

The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell made exactly that case: “I have a humble suggestion for anti-poverty policy . . . better access to contraception.” In 2017, Bryce Covert wrote the New Republic article How the pill made the American economy great, citing research in the Journal of Family and Marriage that “definitely established that the higher the female fertility rate, the lower women’s chances of working in paid jobs”. In 2014, the Atlantic ran with the headline “The social and economic benefits of reliable contraception”.

It is certainly true that access to birth control is individually liberating for many women, and perhaps it is economically beneficial to society too. But it is uniquely cruel to dress it up as freedom-enhancing for all women.

Because so long as the safest financial choice for the precarious is preventing pregnancy, then the idea that these contraception measures bestows ultimate reproductive freedom is illusory at best. The capacity to have children should be as valuable as the choice to not.