Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Bitter Pill

This post has been stewing a few days while I waited for the Senate web site to get its brains unscrambled, but it looks like that won't happen anytime soon.

Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton (NY) and Patty Murray (WA) have been at the forefront of a battle with the Secretary of HHS, Michael O. Leavitt, to prevent the Bush adminsitration from categorizing contraceptive pills and IUDs as abortifacients. Melissa McEwan wrote this up on Shakesville in July. Hillary co-wrote an op-ed for the NYT on this matter, Blocking Care for Women.

Sens. Clinton and Murray on July 16, 2008
Sens. Clinton and Murray on September 23, 2008

A few days ago, French Doc posted Punishing The Poorest Women, which uses a Nicholas Kristof column to talk about what the deliberate refusal of the Bush administration to provide effective contraception means to the poorest and most vulnerable people in these societies - more impoverishment, worse health, sick children and increases in infant and maternal death.

Oral contraceptives are the single most socially transformative invention of the 20th century, something that fundamentally altered how half of the species could act in the world. Women could now control their fertility with a great degreee of precision and without the assitance of men. Until this invention, all forms of contraception had to be some type of barrier method - a condom, a diaphragm, a cervical cap - or else sterilization. (I set aside IUDs for now, but consider them a variation on a barrier) If the barrier wasn't present, pregnancy could take place. Barriers were prone to high rates of failure, condoms required the cooperation of the male, and all required planning. With the pill, women could proactively protect themselves from pregnancy and could regulate their occurance with a minimum of effort.

The pill removed male agency and control from reproduction in a way no other contraceptive ever could. It was a direct assault on the male privilege of impregnating (and incapacitating) women as it suited them, and using the threat of rape and unsanctioned pregnancy to profoundly limit where women could go and what they could do. In the absence of modern medicine, every pregnancy was a life threatening event, and the most common cause of death for a fertile women. It also removed a great deal of power over lower status men who could now engage in sex without the fear of "ruining" a woman or having to forego sexual activity until they were able to afford a wife and children.

The social conservative assault on women has focused on reproduction because it is pivotal in controlling female behavior. The political conservative attack on reproduction also wants to control female behavior, but is more interested in this as a wedge agisnt the formation of privacy rights for anyone. See my posts Privacy and Privacy Rights and Equal Treatment for my extended argument about the attack on privacy by the Right.

What I realized as I read French Doc's post and thought about Hillary and Sen. Murray's fight to make Sec. Leavitt back down (and I give a shout out to their defense of Plan B, too), is that the life I lead could not have occurred without that medication. I recently went off the pill, and the mental shock of knowing that I am now vulnerable to an unplanned pregnancy was greater than I had expected. I now know what pharmacies in the area stock Plan B and who is open 24 hours. When I read about Gov. Palin's youngest child having Down Syndrome, I realized that was something that could happen should I get pregnant. With the financial meltdown, I've spent some hours figuring out "What if..." scenarios should this or that calamity befall us, and I have to factor in an unplanned pregnancy as a possibility. It has made me focus on who is defending my rights.

What makes this a bitter reflection is that I do not hear the senators' defense coming from the mouths of the Party leadership. I hear general blandishments about a woman's right to chose, but not a rigorous defense of the right to contraception in the first place. Before this election season, I would have said that the Democratic Party was sqaurely behind women's rights, but given the misogyny and the kinds of assaults aimed at first Hillary and then Gov. Palin specifically about their sexuality, fecundity, and what their sexual histories "said" about them, I have lost most of that certainty.

Are women's reproductive rights going to be one of those subjects, like gay rights, the Unity Democrats are going to be all bi-partisan about? Maybe keeping the foreign policy stuff in place to placate the Right because it's only poor black and brown women in distant places who will die as a consequence? Maybe rescind requirements that insurance policies have to cover hormonal contraceptives, and state they cannot be used to cover Plan B at all, as a way to get some bipartisan support for health care? Allow conscience clauses everywhere to prevent pharmacists from having to provide this medication to any women? There are a lot of ways to effectively remove a right that fall short of legally dissolving it.

I have no confidence that men on the Left are interested in defending women's rights, starting first and foremost with the right to control their own fertility without unjust burdens and barriers. I will be blogging more on the political uses of misogyny over the next few days.



cellocat said...

When a woman is pregnant, nursing, raising children, feeding them and her family, cleaning house, and working a job too so that her family can stay in their house/apartment/condo, it's tough to find the time and space to engage politically and in other ways with society's power centers. Not impossible, but quite difficult. An example was the crazy caucuses in WA (and the other states) where women with children wound up leaving, because they simply couldn't stay for the requisite 12 hours to complete the process and have their voices heard. The establishment has an easier time of it if a good chunk of half of the population is too busy, tired, and struggling to challenge it.

I think that the issue of contraception/reproduction is one of many significant examples in which women are in the situation where we have to depend upon the goodwill of men for our health and wellbeing. We must trust men not to harass or rape us, to contribute to our financial stability when they make more than we do (and we know we haven't caught up yet), to support us if we become unexpectedly pregnant, etc.

It is vitally important, but NOT a sufficient condition, to have Roe-v-Wade, and to have access to birth control. We must, as a society, start providing sufficient support that women can make free choices about their employment, relationships, reproduction, etc, knowing that they're not going to wind up in poverty through the actions of a man. Women must be able to complain and take action about discrimination at work without risking being fired. They must be able to have access to quality state-supported child care if they wind up with a child, whether intentionally or not. They must have access to a police and justice system which is not inimical to them when they are the victims of assault. Etc.

All of these pieces work together, and all must be tackled together if we are to advance.

I too have been shocked by the incredible lack of true support from the Democratic Party, and Obama, this season. We appear to be taking several sliding steps backwards. We trusted them, as we choose to trust the men in our lives, and it turns out that our interests are, far from being core to the party and its platform, actually being treated as stumbling blocks to power.

My hope is that women will exit this campaign season with a stronger motivation to unite across socio-economic lines to continue the fight for the protections and supports we need, with which we can live healthier more productive lives, and with which we can help change the world.

Anonymous said...

Forced pregnancy and child bearing is THE reason for men's oppression of women. It is not just a tactic.

Men are evolutionarily driven to compete with each other in propagating their genes. To do that they have to subjugate women. All of it, rape, honor killings, poverty, denial of birth control and abortion--all of it is about each man trying to spread his genes and prevent other men from spreading theirs.

It's biological capitalism, if you will. And an evolutionary dead end.

Mike J. said...

I think the disinterest on part of the "men of the Left" (sounds vaguely creepy...) toward domestic and global women's issues is an extension of the "they have nowhere else to go" theme we've heard after Obama became the nominee. Because, indeed, why expend political capital on behalf of a portion of electorate that faithfully votes for you election after election?

Palin represents a threat because she challenges the assumption that women will continue voting Democratic since they have no credible alternative. Thus the reaction to her nomination was near-panic and the assault on her character, instead of challenging her position on reproductive rights which would have forced the Democrats to expend that political capital.