A generation or so from now, American girls may plaintively ask their mothers (and grandmothers), “What did you do in the war, Mom?”
I’m not talking about combat in some far off desert, I am talking about the war against women currently and shockingly being waged in the U.S. presidential primary season.
In what could have been a satire but sadly was not, this week’s Republican presidential debate in Arizona featured four pale men in four indistinguishable suits responding in the CNN debate to the question as to who “believes in birth control.” (The question was booed in the audience, so all hope is not lost.)
Their answers were as incomprehensible as they were mind-blowing. There was fast-rising ultraconservative Rick Santorum maundering on about unwed mothers and “children being born to children” – surely the best reason to make contraception available to all. But no, in his mind it has turned into “the dangers of contraception.” He has also been busy this week musing about the evils of prenatal testing and how it leads to abortion.
And there was former obstetrician and anti-abortion libertarian candidate Ron Paul asserting the pill cannot be blamed for “immorality in society” because immorality came first. And there were all of them, including former moderate Mitt Romney vowing never to give Planned Parenthood a cent of government money, ever again. How can women who care about when and how to plan their families even be married to them?
Call it pelvic politics, Mad Men redux or the triumph of the religious right, this election so far is being waged over female body parts, and who has the right to control them.
From the kerfuffle almost a month ago in which a leading breast cancer charity announced it was withdrawing its funds to Planned Parenthood (under investigation in Congress for providing abortions), which in turn created a Twitterstorm and the eventual reversal of that decision, to women’s rights to get contraceptives under their health insurance if they work for a Catholic institution, to even the Girl Scouts of America being decried by an Indiana state legislator as an organization that promotes abortion and homosexuality, it’s been an eye-popping moment for women’s rights.
The progress women have made in achieving independence and equality is now under attack by a Republican campaign so retro that, as a friend of mine who lives in the U.S. puts it, “I just substitute the word “Taliban” for “tea party” or “right-wing base” and that says it all.”
Moderate Republicans are of course tearing their hair out, and pro-choice Republicans might as well move to Siberia.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as predictable right-wing pandering but as Ann Taylor Fleming writes on the Politico website, it’s not just that the campaign features “Republican candidates trying to outdo each other in the sanctity-of-life sweepstakes,” it’s that “the intensity has picked up. There is a new fervency in the air.”
If anything, Conservatives should be pleased that studies show that today’s teens are less sexually active than they have been in decades past and abortion rates are down. Admittedly there has been a rise in unwed motherhood – some statistics cite the fact that 40 per cent of all American children are born to unmarried women. But that should lead to a resolve to yes, strengthen families, but also make contraception for women as easy to get as condoms.
The intelligentsia seems to be pooh-poohing this pelvic pandering as a temporary diversion from the real issues of the economy and even Iran. After all, a majority of American women –including Catholics – use contraception no matter what their spiritual leaders decree, the sexual revolution is no longer a scapegoat for tank tops or too many women in the workplace, and, as conservative commentator David Brooks opined in the New York Times, “most people want to restrict abortion without making it impossible and we’re kind of exhausted by the fight that never goes anywhere.”
That’s wishful thinking, however. The Republican hard line, which includes at least three major presidential contenders, have declared their opposition to any abortions, including in the case of incest or rape.
The question women need to ask themselves is do they want to go back to an era in which any sexual activity they engaged in was tinged by the terror of having a baby they didn’t want or couldn’t support, and their right to decide when to get pregnant – the most important and life-altering decision a mother can make – is compromised?
Rick Santorum tried to downplay some of his anti-contraception views by declaring, “just because I am talking about it doesn’t mean I want a government program to fix it.”
But you better believe that having him as the presidential candidate and leader of his party would legitimize anti-contraception, let alone anti-choice, beliefs.
“I guess we take all these reproductive rights for granted,” said one 24-year-old woman I know who is too busy pursuing her dreams to pay too much attention to four pale men in indistinguishable suits posturing about birth control.
She shouldn’t take anything for granted. Time to woman up, and get to the barricades.