Is There a War on Women?

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Almost a year ago, The New York Times published an editorial entitled "The War on Women," which began:

Republicans in the House of Representatives are mounting an assault on women's health and freedom that would deny millions of women access to affordable contraception and life-saving cancer screenings and cut nutritional support for millions of newborn babies in struggling families. And this is just the beginning.

That issue rose to the top in budget negotiations, and nearly caused a shutdown of the federal government. The congressional investigation into the operation of Planned Parenthood and its allocation of federal funds became the focus of much news this month when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation explained, at least initially, that was the reason it was pulling its grants from Planned Parenthood. After a veritable frenzy of reaction occurring in the wide open spaces of the world wide web, Komen finds its brand badly battered and Planned Parenthood is unexpectedly holding millions of dollars it didn't expect.

Last week, the issue of birth control became controversial when President Obama announced a compromise as a result of pressure from religious-based organizations: Those charities, schools and churches will not have to cover the cost of birth control as part of the employees' health plan; the insurance companies will pay for contraception instead in those cases.

The Sunday talking heads and columnists are all over the map in their reactions. What conclusions ought we to draw? Are women really facing a violent and calculated assault? Or is using the word "war" in this context another attempt to fan the flames of an already overheated round-the-clock media machine?

First, a recap. In the year just ended, states passed 92 new laws placing restrictions on access to abortion, such as waiting periods of 24 hours or more, compulsory ultrasounds, or prohibiting private insurers from covering pregnancy termination for private individuals paying with private funds. Congress debated ending federal funding for family planning. i.e. contraception, and cutting off all funds for Planned Parenthood, where they are dedicated only to routine care, cancer screening, and contraceptive services.

U.S. Capitol
U.S. Capitol. Image by scazon via Flickr.

For the moment, funding continues for the non-abortion related services; however, nine states have passed laws which prevent all federal funding for providers who also perform abortions in those states, even though the money was and always had been used for non-abortion related services.

So, women and girls without health insurance, dependent on not-for-profit clinics, find abortions more difficult to obtain, and even access to contraceptives dwindling, which defies all logic. Is this movement to restrict access to contraception and abortion equivalent to a "war"?

It's remarkable that our elected representatives (and those who hope to be so), who claim that jobs and the economy consume all their working hours, can manage to do so much about a "women's issue." Historically, "women's issues" don't get all that much attention. Equal pay for equal work stubbornly remains a hope rather than a reality. Paid sick days as a basic labor standard, like safe workplaces or a 40-hour workweek, exist only in Connecticut and a couple of cities. Family leave under FMLA is available to about half the private sector workforce, but it's not paid. California and New Jersey are so far the only states to have passed paid family leave bills. Everywhere else, paid time off when a baby is born or a child adopted might be available at the employer's discretion, and professionals may have this option, but it's no guarantee, and very rare for shift or hourly wage workers. There is no child care system, no standard for early education. Elder care increasingly puts the squeeze on families, and whatever time is devoted to care at the cost of paid work will decrease retirement benefits under Social Security.

These issues, belonging to the daily logistics of family, lack the headline-grabbing potential of abortion rights. However, not having such policies certainly impacts the economic security, health, and well-being of the mother for her lifetime, as well as the education, development, and well-being of her children. Perhaps the persistent inaction of Congress, when all other industrialized nations have long since implemented programs promoting maternal employment and softening the economic peril of the family caregiver, could be called a "stealth war" on moms. Is it part of a larger, concerted effort to curtail the economic mobility of women with children? If so, does that make it a "war"?

One of the most repeated criticisms of the Komen/Planned Parenthood kerfuffle was the outrage that something as pure and wholesome as the mission to eradicate an indiscriminate killer of women should have become caught up in abortion politics. Really, this is a naive view. Women's bodies, and women's lives, have always been treated as a public good, the subject of the most impassioned debate, and fought over relentlessly like the "no man's land" of the western front. Who decides whether or not we should bear children? Who decides whether or not we can control our fertility? Who decides what medical procedures are included in the health care insurance we can buy? Who decides if we work, where and for how much? When we work for money outside the home, who decides how and where and by whom our children are cared for? Who decides if we can slip the leash of work and home to be at the bedside of a dying parent? Do you decide, or do other people, through laws, social pressure, cultural values, and economic realities, decide for you?

Wikipedia says that:

War is an organized, armed, and often a prolonged conflict that is carried on between states, nations, or other parties [1][2] typified by extreme aggression, social disruption, and usually high mortality. War should be understood as an actual, intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities, and therefore is defined as a form of political violence.

Political violence - that seems to me to be a less inflammatory and more helpful notion. A war on women? I'm not so sure. But poltical violence? One could certainly make a case there. What do you think?

'Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington


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