“Free” contraception: disingenuous, or just plain nasty?

I’ve seen three sets of arguments supporting the government’s plan to provide limited free contraception to women on the DPB. The first two are positive arguments in favour of the plan, and the third is a response to arguments raised by people opposing the plan. They are: (1) it’s free contraception; (2) it’s all about improving choices; and (3) it’s not eugenic or racist at all. Let’s look at each of them in turn.

(1) It’s free contraception.
No, it’s not. It’s free contraception of a certain type. It’s only free if you make a government approved choice to use long lasting contraception, such as an implant or an IUD. If it was genuinely free contraception, then the government would be supporting all contraceptive choices, not just the ones that constrain women’s choices.

(2) It’s all about improving choices
It doesn’t improve choices at all. It actually decreases choice with respect to contraception, by weighting the choices heavily in favour of one choice. Of course, women can still “choose” to use other forms of contraception, but when one choice is free, and the others cost money, then a woman who is already poor (remember, this is available only to beneficiaries) may find that she can’t afford to make any other choices about controlling her fertility. If it’s a choice at all, it’s a Hobbesian choice.

Fear and liberty are consistent: as when a man throweth his goods into the sea for fear the ship should sink, he doth it nevertheless very willingly, and may refuse to do it if he will; it is therefore the action of one that was free: (Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Of course, the “choice” offered is not nearly so extreme as Hobbes’ choice, but it is nevertheless a choice that is badly skewed by the costs attached to some options, and as such, it does not improve choices.

(3) It’s not eugenic or racist
Morgan Godfery and I (one, two) have both argued that the policy has racist overtones, in that it is seeking to control the fertility of poor women, and poor brown women, who make up about 53% of those receiving the Domestic Purposes Benefit. The response has been to say, “No, it’s not!” I would stop short of the word “eugenic”, but I do think that there are very nasty overtones about controlling women’s fertility, and given the high proportion of Maori and Pacific Island women amongst beneficiaries, a racist overtone as well. This can be seen in the type of contraceptive that is approved for use: it is long-term contraceptives, which controls fertility for years at a time. But more than that, it is the fact that the “free” contraceptives will be available not just for women on the benefit, but for their sixteen to nineteen year old daughters as well. In other words, not only does the government want to stop poor women from having babies, but it wants to stop their daughters from having babies too. The government is extending its control of women’s fertility to the second generation. It’s that extended reach that makes the policy worrying.

I think that many of the people supporting the policy, or at least not opposing it, have brushed over the details, focusing on “free” contraception, instead of contraception of certain approved type, the weighting of choices, and the reach into the second generation. The government has glossed over these details, but they make all the difference.

As the Dim-Post has pointed out, the government is only spending a million dollars on this policy. It’s chicken feed, and for that small price, they have generated a huge amount of discussion. I’ve said it before, and I think that it’s still valid: there’s a giant dogwhistle in all this, National pandering to its base, inviting them to hate on the beneficiaries. How despicable is that.


2 comments on ““Free” contraception: disingenuous, or just plain nasty?

  1. Denny says:

    I noticed a few months ago that when John Key found himself under pressure (partial sales of SOEs, sale of farmland to overseas corporates …) he wheeled out Paula Bennett to announce policy, or comment on beneficiaries. This does at least two things. Distracts attention from issues that the government doesn’t want to discuss, and redirect its base to emotional issues that appeal to it eg reducing benefits. Nasty but scarily effective. And the government can count on our idiot media to buy into it.

  2. Rob says:

    Spot on Deborah 🙂 Smiling-faced nastiness. Probably comes from the actuaries they feel should be running social welfare…

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