The war on women

By Michael De Dora

On Saturday, April 28, I will speak before an expected crowd of thousands in New York City as part of a nationwide effort led by the organization Unite Women to help raise awareness on the recent attacks on women’s rights and urge those who care to get politically engaged. The movement is endorsed by a wide range of groups, such as the Center for Inquiry, Americans United for Separation for Church and State, Catholics for Choice, and the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

I have noticed that many people — mostly secularist and liberal religionist friends — who would normally support women’s rights have not embraced the term “war on women” and avoided the movement fighting under its banner. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they don’t actually think there is a war going on, or maybe the language strikes them as inflammatory (it is, a bit) and they don’t like conflict.

Well, I think there is much evidence to support to the term “war on women,” and I think it’s a mistake to avoid the current conflict. So, I would like to briefly outline major anti-women legislative actions in the hope that, by the end my essay, those who have been sitting on the sidelines will decide to join tens of thousands across the U.S. on April 28 in working to combat such actions, or else get involved in some other way.

The foremost evidence for the “war on women” is found in recent attacks on reproductive rights by the religious right. In fact, these attacks alone could quality as a war on women. State lawmakers set a record in 2011 for the most anti-reproductive rights provisions enacted in a single year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Legislators introduced more than 1,100 provisions last year, and enacted 135 of them. To help put this in perspective, 89 such provisions were enacted in 2010, 77 in 2009, and only 34 in 2005. Unfortunately, this pace has not slowed much.

The measures include, but are not limited to:

  • “Personhood” proposals that would allow states to completely outlaw abortion, and even emergency contraception. These have had success in states such as Virginia and Oklahoma, and are now being pushed in Nevada.
  • “Fetal pain” laws – now in place in Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama – that ban abortion after 20 weeks;
  • Laws that require physicians to perform ultrasounds, and then show and describe the image of the fetus to the woman asking for an abortion;
  • Mandatory waiting periods – some as long as 72 hours – between ultrasounds and abortions, which negatively impact women who are poor, without transportation, and/or live in rural areas. Keep in mind that 87 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic.
  • New regulations on abortion clinics, regarding things like the amount of space in janitorial rooms, and other requirements, which make it physically or financially impossible for many abortion clinics to remain open.
  • Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides a wide range of critical reproductive health services to women across the U.S.

As I’ve previously written, these attacks are wrong on several fronts. There are no serious philosophical arguments in favor of extending the full range of moral or legal rights to embryos and fetuses. We do not grant such rights to mere “human life,” such as small collections of cells, but to beings that have at least some degree of sentience, self-awareness, or agency. Fertilized human eggs clearly lack all three, as do fetuses until at least 28 weeks, if not later. Moreover, the “fetal pain” argument is moot, as only 1.4 percent happen after 21 weeks, and women who receive late term abortions usually do so because of health reasons (in which case the interests of the mother, a fully grown human being, win out) or difficulty in setting one up (thanks to anti-reproductive rights efforts!).

Furthermore, religious doctrines simply have no place in public policy. They are either untrue or too specifically sectarian for law in a pluralistic society – or both. In sum, women ought to have access to full reproductive health care, and the privacy to make a decision over her body with her doctor.

Fortunately, many of the aforementioned reproductive rights laws have been struck down in courts as clearly violating the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, and several later decisions. Yet while attacks on reproductive rights merit serious consideration, lawmakers have taken much broader political action against women that provides stronger evidence for a “war on women.”

Consider just these five examples:

  • A large number of Senate and House Republicans opposed the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides women greater legal avenues to pursue equal pay lawsuits (which are unfortunately all too necessary);
  • Some Republicans have said they will continue to work to repeal the law;
  • Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently repealed the state’s equal pay act, charging that it could “clog up the legal system.”
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott (who we’ve discussed here before) last week vetoed $1.5 million in funding for state rape crisis centers.
  • And Senate and House Republicans are currently holding up the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg.

Equality is among the most basic of moral ideas, so it would seem uncontroversial to state that men and women ought to be treated equally, and that we should act to reverse situations in which this is not the case. As evidenced above, apparently many elected officials do not accept this proposition. They should be ashamed of themselves. 

Of course, many of those prosecuting the war on women are women. Consider the statements and positions of just a couple female lawmakers or political leaders across the U.S: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minnesota), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Yet whether or not all women agree with these actions, they are negatively affecting all women. First, it is hard, if not impossible, to predict how one’s feelings might change regarding abortion depending on the circumstances, such as threats to the mother’s health or severe birth defects. Even the wife of Rick Santorum, who believes abortion is always wrong, apparently took advantage of her legal access to abortion-type services. As such, I think it helps everyone to keep abortion accessible, and let people decide if they would like to partake or not. Or else you get horrible stories like these. Second, the attacks on outfits such as Planned Parenthood have an impact not on just reproductive health, but on the overall quality of a woman’s health. Yes, Planned Parenthood performs reproductive services, but they also provide a wide range of health services, such as cancer screenings, regular check ups, contraception coverage, STD-related work, and more. Lastly, we live in a bad economy in which we all have lesser choices, and most women fewer choices than men merely because of their sexual orientation. Their choices become even fewer when they lose control of their reproductive systems and are subjected to unfair economic situations.

All of this is why I think one can reasonably argue there is an ongoing social phenomenon that could be described as a war on women’s rights. It doesn’t matter whether the war is being waged by the religious right or by economic conservatives, or whether these lawmakers are doing it to distract from their lack of solutions for real political problems. It is happening. The question then becomes: what should we do? I think there are two answers. 

Increasing the scope and turning up the volume of the conversation on women’s rights is an important first step, and the Unite Women marches and rallies on April 28 will help. But if you can’t make it on April 28, there are plenty of other things you can do. Write letters to the editor. Write and comment on blog posts and online news articles. Attend local hearings and public forums and voice your opinions. Post links to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and whatever other social networks you use. Do whatever you can to spread the message.

But that is not enough. A majority of Americans could agree about reproductive rights and sex equality, and yet a small group of lawmakers could still work to pass opposition measures in Congress and statehouses across the U.S.

This is why we need not just social action, but also political action. Sign up for and fill out action alerts as much as possible (here, here, and here) and let lawmakers know that you oppose or support pending legislation. Call, write, or schedule meetings with them to state and explain your views. Write federal agendies when comment periods are open on federal regulations and rules. Hold them accountable. Tell them that they should either support your views, or face the prospect of looking for a new job next election.

You might think that all of this is relatively inconsequential, but that is not true. The more that elected officials hear from you, the more they have to consider your points of view. Remember, they want to keep their job. Also, the more that the public hears the logic and reasons for reproductive rights and sex equality, the greater the chances those who agree might get involved, and those who don’t — either they sit on the fence or lean right — might actually learn something and shift their views. Which means that politicians might have to consider your viewpoints sooner than they thought.

The kinds of social and political action I’m discussing here does not take as much time as you might think, and there is no guarantee anyone else will take up the cause. Simply put, a couple moments of your time could make a difference.

So, yes, there is a war on women — but we have the power to fight back. If you’re near New York City on April 28, please join us. Or, if you live in a different part of the country, visit UniteWomen.org to connect with a march in your neighborhood. Or, if you can’t make any of the events, take some notes from above and get involved. Anything less would leave reproductive rights and sex equality to the religious right and economic conservatives. And we’ve seen the damage they can do.

Note: this entry is also posted on Free Thinking.