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Herald on Sunday Editorial: Contraception for beginners

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Prime Minister John Key and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. Photo / Getty Images
Prime Minister John Key and Social Development Minister Paula Bennett. Photo / Getty Images

When Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was putting the finishing touches to this week's policy announcement that free long-acting contraception would be made available for beneficiaries, we may be sure that she knew it would go down like a lead balloon.

And the public comment will not have disappointed her. Indignant women's and beneficiaries' advocates have asserted the importance of protecting reproductive rights from state control. Some have sought to conjure a sci-fi future in which social welfare assistance will come with a requirement to submit to the regime.

Labour's David Shearer wanted to know why young fathers were not being "called to account", which was both impractical and failed to focus on the actual problem. The Conservatives' very strange Colin Craig decided that some widely discredited research by a condom manufacturer identified the source of the problem: Kiwi women are too easy.

The most surreal reactions came from social media commentators who thought that Bennett, having been a teen mother herself, had no right to deny her present-day counterparts the same level of support she enjoyed. Almost lost in the hubbub were the voices of teenage mothers, several of whom told reporters that they thought it wasn't such a bad idea.

The naysayers notwithstanding, this is an entirely sensible initiative of relatively minor significance.

The particular problem that it seeks to address is not critical: barely 1000 women aged under 19 are on the Domestic Purposes Benefit (they are the initial target group for the scheme, which will later be widened to all women on benefits and their daughters) but almost half of the women in that group will have a second child while on the benefit. The numbers don't look much better in older groups.

Critics glibly call that a lifestyle choice (which may be true in such areas as rural Northland where the only alternative employment is criminal) but in doing so they seek to pass a moral judgment without addressing the problem: some women are trapped in a cycle of solo domestic drudgery and poverty which they may need encouragement to step out of.

Subsidised contraception is available to all women, which is as it should be. This initiative simply provides another possible intervention point. Shearer's claim that it is inappropriate for contraceptive advice to be given by front line staff at Work and Income rather than doctors is, frankly, silly. Staff would be doing no such thing; they would tell appropriate clients about the availability of long-term, reliable and reversible birth control. A woman would still need to see a doctor to get it.

The idea that women might be subtly - or not-so-subtly - pressured to avail themselves of such an offer is easy to inflate into a grotesque totalitarian assault on the rights of women. But it's far from that simple.

The DPB was established as to allow a measure of dignity and protection to women who had been abandoned by the fathers of their children or who sought refuge from toxic or violent relationships. It was a visionary and noble idea that was intended as short-term support, but it has developed into a long-term subsidy of motherhood which was never part of the social contract.

Parents who raise families while earning a living are entitled to feel aggrieved that they are supporting others. At this stage there is no suggestion that beneficiaries will come under pressure to accept contraception but, as a society, we should not shrink from the challenge of debating whether they should.

- Herald on Sunday

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