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Republicans are on the warpath, and their enemy is women.
Okay, maybe not all women. Just poor women. And those who are disabled and/or chronically ill. Oh, and women of color, young women, old women, and those in between. Also, women who are not citizens of the United States, especially the brown women who risk life and limb to cross national borders for a hoped-for better future for themselves and their children. And most certainly, without a doubt, women who reproduce; that is, women whom the pale, callous men in dark suits believe either should or should not be reproducing (so pretty much any human being with ovaries and a uterus), and the organizations that aid these suspect women.
On February 18, 2011, with Indiana Republican Mike Pence, advocate of “traditional moral values,” leading the charge, the House voted 240-185 to withhold federal funding from Planned Parenthood for any purpose. Why? Because Planned Parenthood provides abortions. The fact that it primarily provides basic health care, including reproductive and sexual health care (e.g., contraceptives), for millions of women each year does not earn this organization Brownie points with the silver-haired Feds. After all, serving the needs of low-income women has never been a priority for the Right, or for conservative/moderate Democrats. Planned Parenthood is not the only target of Pence and Company; the Republicans seek to eliminate all Title X funding. Never mind that no amount of restriction in any nation on the planet has managed to stop women seeking abortions; limits only harm women.
Georgia State Representative Bobby Franklin (a Republican, natch) recently made news by proposing a new definition of miscarriage as “prenatal murder” that would be punishable by death. Yes, you heard me right. In a stunning example of pro-life hypocrisy (right up there with South Dakota’s proposed legislation that could allow the killing of abortion doctors), if Bobby has his way in Georgia, a woman who miscarries could be convicted of prenatal murder and thus be put to death. Lest we think Georgia is simply behaving in predictable old-school, white-boy Southern fashion, let’s turn to Utah, where the 2010 Criminal Homicide and Abortion Amendments would criminalize abortion and miscarriage. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Carl Wimmer, is also chairman of Utah Family Action Council which is determined to do away with Roe v. Wade and all it stands for.
Here in Arizona, on the heels of the controversial and divisive SB1070 anti-immigration bill and related measures that have turned the state into a symbol of racist intolerance, Republican legislators are now pursuing birthright citizenship bills. Targeting so-called “anchor babies,” this legislation, which is also being proposed in numerous other states in direct challenge to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, would deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants. The putative rationale behind these measures posits that Latinas travel to the United States in a calculus of fecund greed largely to birth their babies on American soil so as to “anchor” themselves and their families and to begin suckling from the (ever-diminishing) teat of public funds. It is worth noting here that there are numerous bills before the Arizona legislature that target women’s health care and reproductive services, including abortion. The “anchor baby” bill sits at the junction of anti-immigrant and anti-woman sentiments, and thus focuses and fosters racial and gender discrimination.
Given the extremely precarious economic times in which we live, it has been relatively easy for right-wing Republicans (and some “blue dog” Democrats) to cloak their ugly anti-women initiatives in fiscal conservatism. With a 2011 budget deficit nearing $1.5 trillion—the largest deficit in history, one created in large part by the Bush administration—and an increasingly indebted, foreclosed and pink-slipped populace, politicians know that something must be done, if only to ensure they are reelected. Some Democrats emphasize jobs, although much too anemically, while also attempting to protect and expand public programs for health care, including reproductive health care. (Other Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, are all too happy to toss women under the bus in order to secure passage of critical legislation and keep the government up and running.)
Yet, spending money is not especially popular these days, as evidenced by Republican gains in the mid-term elections. Extolling thrift and virtue as two sides of the same coin, Republicans in Washington, D.C. and in state houses around the country are thus slashing programs, especially those serving people who are least able to fight back. Of course, the notion that reducing access to contraception and sexual education will through some numeric sleight of hand reduce the number of abortions in the United States—a nation with one of the highest unplanned pregnancy rates in the world—is not just bad politics. It’s stupid, too.
But let’s look a little more closely at the Right’s so-called fiscal conservatism. At the same time that Planned Parenthood’s coffers are being raided in the name of morality, and women’s lives are being placed at risk, other programs are being proposed that make a mockery of conservative efforts. Recently, Representative Dan Burton (R-Indiana) proposed a legislative amendment that would prevent the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from capturing and slaughtering wild horses. Instead, the BLM would be required to use contraception to control the horses’ fertility. So wild horses can get contraceptives to save money and (equine) lives, but women cannot, suggesting that Republicans use a different abacus for determining the cost of women’s fertility.
But then again, we already knew this.
In the wake of such legislation, which ranges from the ludicrous (e.g., birth control for horses) to the potentially deadly (e.g., eliminating basic healthcare for low-income women), it is all too easy to invoke the conspiratorial. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a full quarter century after its publication, has never felt more prophetic. We could be living through our own misogynistic, theocratic, fascist revolution devolution. Women, especially our nation’s most vulnerable women and their children, are clearly being targeted, and Republican legislation will no doubt have real, embodied consequences in the lives of these women and their families. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) faces a $758 million cut (about 6%), and the nation’s community health centers and poison control programs, which serve predominantly children, are also directly singled out for cuts.
But I want to suggest a more complicated picture than “they’re out to get us.” So let me share just one more recent example from the headlines: the “vindication” of fetal surgery for spina bifida. Thirty years after the origins of fetal surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, the results of a clinical trial sponsored by the National Institutes of Health showed that it was more beneficial to operate on babies with spina bifida before birth, when they were fetuses, than to wait until after birth. Never mind the risks, including preterm labor, or the complex ethical issues, such as maternal-fetal conflict, raised in my 1998 book and elsewhere. Apparently, fetal surgery has been validated not on ethical grounds, but because it works. I have neither the space nor the inclination to compare utilitarianism and consequentialism, but the Chicago School pragmatist in me must pose the question: works for whom?
I bring up fetal surgery here not simply because juxtaposing fetal surgery’s “success” with massive funding cuts to Title X, maternal and child health, and other programs for women and children reveals what Shellee Colen called “stratified reproduction.” The hierarchy of care and concern for fetuses, babies and pregnant women is alive and well in the United States and globally; some fetuses and babies are salvageable, indeed subject to boutique care, while others are clearly expendable. But I also invoke fetal surgery here to illustrate that our cultural landscape is peopled with fetal persons and patients, developing entities with whom women of all political stripes develop social relationships. Indeed, when I was pregnant with my first daughter, I named my unborn baby, posted her ultrasound picture on the refrigerator, and routinely spoke and sang to her. I firmly believe that people on the “right” and the “left” care for fetuses and babies, although the organized Right’s much-vaunted rhetorical concern for fetuses must be read with skepticism. Republicans seem to care for fetuses only as a kind of flesh-and-blood wedge into women’s reproductive lives; their regard fades astonishingly quickly once fetuses become babies, especially if the babies are nonwhite.
What I’m suggesting here is that in responding to massive Republican attacks on women’s health care—and we must respond, because silence and inaction will be deadly—we need to step out of our comfort zones of pro- and anti- and into the murkiness of contemporary reproductive politics. We need to embrace the landscape of wanted and unwanted fetuses and of “moral” and “immoral” women. We must seek to understand, and to respect, the sexual and reproductive choices of all women, even those most profoundly different from us. We need to accept that although we have a common enemy, our needs and desires are multiple; no one strategy or solution will secure our reproductive freedoms, or the health, survival and future of our children. We need to care as much about other women’s children (or decisions not to have children) as we do our own. And we must wade into the troubled waters of life’s meaning—philosophical and biological, social and political—and refuse to allow the Right to define not only embryonic and fetal bodies, but our own bodies.
Of course, doing so mandates that the one in five women who seek Planned Parenthood across their lifetimes, and their partners, join us in these efforts. It also requires that Democrats, who should be firmly in our corner every day rather than on our side only when it suits their agenda, cowboy and cowgirl up and challenge the forces of injustice and intolerance. It also suggests—although I am less hopeful about this one—that moderate Republicans work tirelessly to silence the rabid ideologues among them. I am pessimistic about this because moderate Republicans have clearly benefited from the hateful rhetoric espoused by the far-right wing of the party. They only pretend to distance themselves while reaping the rewards at the ballot box.
And if none of this works, one day we will wake up believing that the colorless men in choking ties are indeed out to get us. And on that day, we will pour through the streets arm-in-arm like a thunderous, raging, relentless tide of furies. Those who seek to harm us will tumble beneath our waves, and we will prevail.