When lawmakers make policy that impacts women specifically, they often justify it by claiming that it is in the state’s legitimate interest to protect the autonomy and dignity of women. It is precisely this oppressive rhetoric about preserving female integrity that is employed when women are not part of the dialogue.
What ends up invariably occurring is the debates and subsequent passage of legislation affecting surrogacy, abortion and birth control — all taking place without a meaningful female presence. Just last Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) brought to the forefront via a tweet and e-mail the fact that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on religious liberty and contraception consisted exclusively of testimony from men from conservative religions organizations. At the hearing, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) refused to allow a progressive woman to testify in favor of Obama’s birth control mandate, which does not exempt religiously affiliated employers from having to include contraception in insurance coverage of employees.
But the attack on reproductive health care, and women’s rights at large, reached its peak when a string of invasive legislative measures gained traction in Congress and in the popular media these past few weeks. The effort to withdraw funding for Planned Parenthood by the Susan G. Komen Foundation; the Virginia law that would require vaginally penetrative ultrasounds of women about to undergo an abortion; and the anti-birth control bill that would give employers the power to deny coverage for contraception all culminated in an uproar amongst women’s rights advocates. It’s worth noting that these consist of both male and female Democrat lawmakers.
The uniform feature, then, remains to be a conservatively fueled encroachment on the female body, without any real engagement with the female demographic. It is grounded in the age-old Republican argument that these measures are necessary since the background conditions of gender inequality (most markedly manifesting itself in income disparities) that characterize our society make reproductive issues a unique harm in perpetuating these conditions. Moreover, it is often claimed on the right that conditions of racial and economic inequality are further enforced through the asymmetry of things like surrogacy and abortion. This logic implies that since women face structural marginalization, they should then also be subject to the patriarchy of the state in “protecting” them from this marginalization. One way to do this is by limiting births out of wedlock and into poverty.
The issue with this argument is that it, itself, reinforces the asymmetrical status of women in our society. Since these inequalities are inherently socially constructed, any discussion of a particular practice reinforcing those inequalities only works to do just that — reinforce those very inequalites, especially without the consent of women themselves. That is, when those on the right claim that the market of women’s reproductive labor widens the gap in equality between men and women, they entrench the notion that the gap in equality between men and women is hopelessly wide. This is not to say that the gap is nonexistent (it is very much grounded in racial and economic factors that contribute to that inequality), but that it is at risk of becoming unequivocally enduring once legislators begin to posit that the choices a woman makes with her body should be limited so as not to be socially degraded. It’s a circular argument that’s padded only by morally righteous grandiloquence.
What’s more, when the state supersedes its power and dictates the extent to which women can use their bodies (whether to terminate an unwanted pregnancy or engage in contract pregnancy), it is also implicitly asserting that women do not have the equal right (that men have) in the market economy or with their own bodies, and that it is limited based on their procreational skill. This is inequality.
The politicization of the female body is a tragic barrier to uninhibited social progress. It is a gross violation of human rights, adding to a legacy of marginalization and domination through politics. More disturbingly, it is also the tolerance of what amounts to what most democrats and critics of mandates like the Virginia ultrasound bill call “state-sponsored rape.” Government intrusions at this scale demonstrates what that state’s House of Delegates’ David Englin (D-VA) describes as the “lengths Republican legislators will go to prevent women from controlling their own reproductive destiny.”
The political discussion about women’s rights simply cannot take place without women at the table. If we allow it to continue, the discussion about our human rights will begin to take place without us.
To support the petition demanding that women be at the table when discussing women’s health issues, go to www.dccc.org/pages/wherearethewomen.