Instead, contraception has been promoted as a way to promote an ideology about people and relationships that has hurt, rather than helped, the people it claims to assist, said Helen Alvare.
"We really have been primed for quite a bit of time to think of contraception in the context of the question about feminism, about it empowering women," Alvare, a professor of law at George Mason University, stated in a March 5 address at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C.
However, the promotion of contraception has not caused substantial improvements in the developing world or in more impoverished areas of the U.S., and has not led to better maternal policies, she said.
"No one thought that we would still be having this conversation" when the contraceptive pill was introduced, she commented, but its inability to deliver on the promises of an improved society call into question its reputation as the source of women's empowerment.
The lecture, titled "Hitched: Are Contraception and Feminism Inextricably Tied?", was sponsored by the Anscombe Society at Catholic University.
Alvare explained that originally, policies promoting contraceptives to developing nations were suggested under national security policies that centered on "reducing populations in countries that we didn't want more of." However, they were publicly discussed as development aids, under the presumption that "large populations were responsible for poverty" and that providing contraceptives was "really just an anti-poverty policy."
Research, however, by economists and development experts show that this approach does not work.
Investigation by Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, Alvare said, shows that "some of the most crowded countries in the world have perfectly fine standards of living for the vast majority of people," while "some of the most sparsely populated countries have some of the worst poverty."
She also pointed out that Pritchett's research shows that people throughout history have been capable of regulating how many children they have without the use of artificial contraceptives, because they "value other things more than they value absolute spontaneity in sexual encounters at all times."
"All of this talk about 'unmet need' has the presumption,” which has not been borne out by Pritchett's research, “that there's an extraordinarily high cost to having in any way avoid spontaneity.”
In addition, a study by Amartya Sen, a development expert at New York University, shows that prosperity in developing countries "did not have to do with trying to affect the size of the population directly." Instead, according to Sen's research, a country's development relies upon "its extending credit to women, its equality for women in all arenas, education, business, etc., and its policies that tamp down on corruption.”
Alvare also pointed to the health effects of hormonal contraceptives as shown in several large-scale experiments and class-action suits, challenging the labeling of hormonal contraceptives as "women's health." The reversible sterilization of a population of poor inner-city residents of St. Louis Missouri with long-acting reversible contraceptives resulted in a rise in HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases because of the hormones' effects on the body.
In addition, hormonal contraceptives have not led to a decrease in unintended pregnancies, she noted. The brunt of this increase in unintended pregnancies has been experienced by poor women, she explained: "the people who get it for free have the highest rates of unintended pregnancy."
“What they don't have is better school, better jobs, a means of getting to a better life -- but they do have free contraception.”
However, support of contraception is still being pushed by the government, as well as by organizations and companies with a "vested interest" in increasing contraceptive sales, she said, such as pharmaceutical companies.
The government "has gotten in on the act as a cheerleader for contraception," Alvare commented, "celebrating it as an entree into sex without relationship and sex without children" by promoting campaigns encouraging premarital sex for young adults and through government regulations such as the HHS mandate which requires employers to provide contraceptives to women at no cost -- a uniquely privileged class among medical products.
In this approach "they are really promoting sexual expression as freedom, and particularly as freedom for women," an ideology she called "sexualityism."
Alvare explained this idea holds that "sexual expression when you want it, of any kind, without consequences, is the good to be pursued."
She pointed to the 2012 elections in which the discussion over contraception "was not about poverty" but rather "it was that women are free when their sex lives are unburdened."
The message, Alvare said, was that “you're free because you're sexual: it has nothing to do with building a relationship with a man, let alone with a child.”
Pointing back to the various studies on contraception's side effects for society, Alvare said that contraception has not led to better opportunities and it has not "really given any flexibility for mothers" in society.
Instead it has "generated an opportunity cost" for women interested in becoming mothers.
Moreover, contraception changes the way people think about relationships by "reducing the seriousness of sex."
Given contraception, people "forget about the fact that sex means something" and that it's a "different kind of physical activity" than others.
"It changes the marketplace" of sexual encounters.
This change is troubling for society's needs at large, Alvare argued. Studies of people's desires and regrets show that people " want relationships that are mutual -- where they are a gift to be given," Alvare said, pointing to studies showing that respect for one's partner and "an ethic of the gift" within marriages leads to higher levels of happiness.
In "long studies on what was the stuff of life … the stuff of life was relationships," she concluded, and contraception "severs" the understanding of relationships.
Contraception has been promoted by the U.S. government as a tool for the expansion of freedom, especially for women, but actually has not been shown to promote this goal, according to a legal expert.
Feminism, Development, Helen Alvare