How Conservatives Are Weaponizing Parental Rights Against Birth Control
White Christian conservative parents are arguing that their "parental rights" give them power to restrict their kids' access to birth control.
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The far right is recycling its anti-abortion playbook of advancing incremental and accelerationist policies designed to decimate abortion access for its judicial quest against birth control.
Back in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that privately held corporations do not have to offer contraception in their employee insurance plans if doing so burdens the employer’s religious beliefs. Now, anti-abortion activists are using a strategy that has been integral to their crusade against masks, LGBTQ people, and efforts to discuss race in the classroom: parental rights.
Jonathan Mitchell, the architect of Texas SB 8 and an attorney who brought a religious liberty suit against the provision of PrEP in employees’ health care, represents Alexander Deanda, a Texas father who opposes the Title X family planning program’s provision of reproductive health services without parental consent. Even though none of Deanda’s daughters had sought out birth control at any of Texas’ Title X clinics, he alleges that their ability to access contraception without his permission would violate his parental right to raise his children according to his Christian beliefs.
In Deanda v. Becerra, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, who has authored anti-immigrant and anti-trans opinions and will soon decide a case that will dictate the future of abortion access, ruled that “the right to direct the education and upbringing of one’s children” is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition,” and that Title X impinged on this right.
Jennifer Berkshire, a writer who covers the intersection of education and politics, said that while it may seem as though the parental rights movement emerged in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines, it has a much longer history.
“The parental rights movement is a really old cause,” Berkshire said. “The first time it really flared up in the U.S. was over the issue of child labor. When there was a big push to regulate child labor, there were a lot of parents who said, ’You’re interfering with my right to send my child off to work.’ It started then and has never stopped. It always flares up at times of social and cultural change.”
Berkshire added that while all types of parents have engaged in parental rights campaigns, the movement’s current iteration is led by white Christian conservative parents. These identities “shape both their criticism of what’s happening in the schools and the policies they’re backing,” Berkshire said.
The parental rights movement was visible in the 1970s in the form of backlash against the gay rights movement, Berkshire said, and in the ’90s, when a “parents’ revolt” began in 1993 over schools trying to teach students about sex education and same-sex families. In response to these changes, parents “were trying to enshrine in state constitutions language that put parents in charge of directing the health, upbringing, and education of their children,” Berkshire said.
In fact, the parental rights fervor of the ’90s might have been the impetus behind Texas’ parental involvement in birth control law passed in 1998. This law allowed only married minors in Texas to consent to contraception without parental involvement. Title X’s confidential reproductive health clinics were a workaround for this restriction. Graci D’Amore, senior manager of direct services at Jane’s Due Process, who manages the text and phone hotline where teens can reach out for reproductive health information, said Texas teens have expressed anxiety and devastation about shrinking pregnancy prevention options.
“There was a lot of confusion when that [Deanda v. Becerra decision] came out in December,” D’Amore said. “There was a couple-week period over the holidays where teens did not know whether they could get birth control at the clinics.”
D’Amore also said it has been frustrating for her and Jane’s Due Process volunteers to tell teens about their limited contraceptive options.
“Teens are trying everything they can to prevent pregnancy,” she said. “They’re asking, ’Can I go to Planned Parenthood or get birth control online [without parental involvement]?’ It’s really infuriating and frustrating to be on the other end of the phone call and say, ’I’m so sorry, the alternative is talking to your parents and having them go to the clinic,’ as we know isn’t an option for many people … or use condoms, the pull-out method, or emergency contraception as a backup, which you can only use once a month for it to be most effective.”
It is no mistake that attacks against birth control places Title X in its crosshairs. Trump’s 2019 domestic “gag rule” on Title X led to a drastic reduction in the number of people who accessed the program’s services, from 4 million patients in 2017 to 1.5 million patients in 2020.
Eleanor Grano, director of Advocacy and Partnership at Jane’s Due Process, said the Deanda decision is another example of government actors usurping other people’s reproductive and bodily autonomy.
“Young people have the right to access reproductive health and there should not be a white, cis man controlling the bodily autonomy of youth,” Grano said.
Berkshire said the decision exemplifies the conflict between “parental rights” and minors’ autonomy: “The battle is always over who has more authority: the parent or child?”
While Texas legislators have introduced the My Body, My Future Act, which would allow teens to access contraceptives at any Texas clinic, in response to the ruling, Grano said the White House has not acknowledged the importance of birth control for young people. Not recognizing the Deanda decision is detrimental to the security of the right to contraception. The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision previewed the legal reasoning the Supreme Court may use to overturn Griswold v. Connecticut and Eisenstadt v. Baird, the cases that recognized that married and single people had a right to contraception, respectively. Justice Samuel Alito wrote in Dobbs that because Roe “enflamed debate and deepened division,” abortion should be “returned to the people and their elected representatives.” Arguably, this logic can also apply to birth control, and the conservative justices could use the Deanda ruling as evidence of opposition to birth control, and a reason why Griswold should be overruled and the right to contraception should be decided by the states.
Jane’s Due Process has not let the Deanda decision keep it from providing sexual and reproductive health information to teens. According to Grano, in response to the decision, Jane’s Due Process has started providing more sex education around pregnancy and letting teens know they don’t need parental consent to access Plan B.
“Young people deserve to know that they have agency over their bodies, regardless of what the state is trying to brainwash them into thinking,” Grano said.