By Rachel Donahoe, Student Writer for The Journal of Gender, Race & Justice
As evidenced by JGRG’s February blog, this has been active month for social issues. Iain Johnson was correct that despite the dismal economy, social issues remain at the forefront of election politics. In a thinly veiled effort to rally the conservative base, they have attacked women’s reproductive autonomy.
While many hot political issues have been at forefront of the national discussion, I think birth control and abortion win this month. Issues ranged from Susan G. Komen’s anti-abortion stand against Planned Parenthood, the Catholic stance on birth control coverage, Planned Parenthood’s viral picture of only men at a Congressional hearing on birth control, or Virginia’s proposed abortion requirements. While all these stories come from different political and religious groups, the resounding theme is the same: women’s reproductive autonomy is under attack in national politics.
It is important to acknowledge that we live in a democracy where each person should be able form their own opinions and express them accordingly. However, these groups have crossed the line from speech to policy. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion allow you to express your own beliefs and exercise them for yourself, but not others. These Constitutional freedoms therefore, do not and should not be used to dictate national policies that affect people who wish to be free from religion’s grasp – an equally protected right.
The Komen issue is interesting because Komen is a private non-profit that technically is able to send their money where they please. However, they hopefully now understand the public relations disaster that can occur when politics mix with a public health mission. Politics and fear-mongering made them change a policy to deny funding for clinical breast exams, a proven screening mechanism for breast cancer. This wasn’t necessarily an infringement on any right – but I think that Komen demonstrated that the rhetoric about birth control and abortion still has a strong influence on many policies, even those policies that seem non-political on their face. Thus, this shows that activists must be guard for policies that have discriminatory effects on women’s rights disguised as something else. They did this and raised the alarm against Komen – and Komen will feel the effects of their marketing mistake for a long time.
The Catholic lawsuit and the proposed Virginia law that would require transvaginal ultrasounds before abortions (which did not pass) represent a different attack on women’s reproductive autonomy. The rhetoric used by these groups is the highest level of attack on women’s morality.
In the Virginia debate, an unnamed GOP representative supported the requirement of transvaginal ultrasounds by stating “that women had already made the decision to be ‘vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant’” and thus he had no reservations about requiring an invasive test even when not medically necessary. This type of speech classifies all women who may consider an abortion as immoral, and suggests that consenting to one instance of sex means that they will consent for the rest of their lives – it is inflammatory. This rhetoric is easy to identify and argue against and many feminist activists did just that – Amy Poehler successfully scathed the law on Saturday Night Live, ending the segment by shouting: “don’t tell me what to do!” SNL and Jon Stewart’s mockery of the story contributed to its downfall in Virginia. While the feminist rhetoric successfully removed the law, it did not address the underlying ideological issue at the heart of this on-going battle. The GOP in Virginia probably still holds the same belief and wants this bill passed – they only removed it because of the public backlash against it. Thus, if female activists want to truly be successful, they need to use rhetoric that frames everyone as equal and that affirms all people’s ability to chose their own lifestyle for themselves, whatever that may be.
This ideological core of self-determination brings me to the Catholic lawsuit against mandated birth control coverage for Catholic institutions. To me, this represents the heart of the attack on reproductive rights. Institutions (in this case the Catholic church) seek to force their views on others through economic and social means, by degrading those who disagree and hiding behind religious freedom as an excuse for mandating a religious code on those who they secularly employ.
I think that the best rhetorical response to these political pressures is not biting back. Affirming women’s right to choose their own reproductive course means affirming that others may have a different view as well. I think the Constitution guarantees that we can make our own decision about how to live our lives and that NO law, government entity or religious entity can stop us. Fighting for reproductive autonomy is really a fight for equality and tolerance and a fight against inflammatory statements – to understand that different views can co-exist peacefully as long as they respect each other’s views.
So while I encourage feminists to speak out, like they successfully have, remember that to uphold the spirit of the law of equality, we must fight against inflammatory rhetoric and fight for everyone’s ability to choose their own course, even when we disagree.