The War on Women Continues
Patriarchy and right wing myths fuel debate over contraception mandate
It’s one of the tragedies of contemporary American politics— women’s health issues are never just about women or their health. This unfortunate reality has seldom been more visible than in recent weeks, with conservative religious institutions’ reaction to the Obama administration’s decision that the Affordable Care Act will mandate that contraceptives be covered by all health insurance policies.
From following most of the mainstream media’s coverage, you’d think the White House was out to depose the Pope himself or deface the grave of Martin Luther. Conservative Catholic bishops and evangelical Protestants have been livid, but their anger masks the true issue behind this debate and only serves to frame it in terms convenient to them. Barely anyone, especially conservatives, has shifted their perspective to see the effects of the mandate from the point of view of women’s health. Instead, the debate is instead a chance to score a point against the President and continue the imposition of a reactionary Christian moral code on every sector of society these zealots can touch.
It’s important to get the facts straight: Obama’s contraceptive rule does not force-feed the pill to any religious institution. After a smart compromise, it is the insurance companies used by these institutions to provide coverage to their employees or students that will have to provide for birth control. Moreover, there is nothing that says individual members of these organizations cannot simply choose not to use contraceptives. Providing the option for coverage from an outside company certainly is not the same as forcing an agenda on these religions—it’s intellectually dishonest to say it is.
The issue also looks a lot different coming from a woman’s perspective—no matter her religion. Contraceptives are expensive. At its cheapest, the pill runs around $200 a year when purchased out of pocket, and other forms like birth control shots or IUDs are far more expensive. For students and low-income women, these costs are entirely prohibitive. While condoms are cheap and usually readily available for men from local clinics, these same public health resources are unable to accomodate the overwhelming demand for oral contraception. Although many conservatives like to suggest otherwise, a great number of women rely on the pill for uses other than pregnancy interference, including relief for heavy periods, severe acne and menstrual pain, as well as the prevention of ovarian cysts and a host of other ailments. In many cases, this form of medication is far more effective for women than others on the market and has fewer side effects. Since its introduction, birth control has become a true multi-purpose drug for women and has helped facilitate gigantic improvements in their health and productivity because of it. It’s not just about not getting pregnant.
Basic health benefits aside, the central argument used by conservatives—that the mandate is somehow an attack on religious freedom—is still astonishingly dubious.
Though it may seem obvious, it’s important to recall that religious institutions often have to cope with rules of secular society that they often find objectionable. Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists can’t stipulate that their tax dollars not be used to finance destruction overseas, for instance. Their religiously-based objections to U.S. policy do not exempt them from following the law.
Additionally, the religious organizations themselves are imposing upon a woman’s freedom of religion and equal access to healthcare— not the Obama administration. Simply because a woman works in a religious institution should not mean she is required by economic situation to follow a single, narrow interpretation of religious rule. She should be able to serve some facets of her faith while objecting to other interpretations and not have her health penalized for it. Conservatives will say she should simply choose somewhere else to work. Given today’s job market, this is a problematic suggestion that also indicates the sexism at the core of the matter: a man would never be faced with a similar situation where he had to choose between his job and sex life.
Indeed, buried in this controversy are the attitudes of the long history of American patriarchal hierarchy. A male-dominated society—which the U.S. still is, especially in the institutions of religion and government— simply cannot appropriately represent the in- terests of women’s sexual health. Some of the reasons are simple. Sex is a comparatively easy business for men. While everyone needs to keep an eye out for those nasty STDs, the fellas don’t have to worry about carrying a baby for 9 months, being a single mother in the all- too-common case of a runaway dad or facing the stigma and emotional implications of an abortion. Try as we might, I just don’t think we can really wrap our heads around that stuff.
Our society—especially the more conservative, religious sectors of it—still defines very different roles for men and women in sexual life, and these ideologies cannot be separated from the rhetoric surrounding women’s health. Although norms are slowly changing, a sexually-active woman is still viewed quite differently from a sexually-active man. The former is a slut, whore or “loose” woman, while similar behavior is more expected and acceptable coming from the man. We still place a very different value on the chastity of a woman versus that of a man, and this hypocrisy rears its head every day from the television screen to individual parenting choices for sons and daughters.
To put it simply, a man would never have to think of changing his job or university because of access to birth control or other medications. If, for a moment, we abandoned our insistence on these gender norms, we would see that insurance coverage for contraceptives is not anything extraordinary, but merely another tool to ensure women have the widest possible array of choices to support their health.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening anytime soon, not least because conservative forces are bent on preventing the advancement of women into new, non-traditional roles in society and sexual culture. The reactionary yearning for the pure, obedient housewife is clearly still alive and well in the Republican Party today. Even the most prominent and powerful women in and around the party—from Sarah Palin to Michelle Bachmann to Ann Coulter— still espouse a medievalist role for women in America. Even while campaigning to inhabit the most powerful office in the world, Bachmann still said she believed in the truth of a bibilical verse that says a woman should be “submissive” and “obedient” to her husband. They undoubtedly view further access to birth control not as a tool to let women live life the way they choose, but a chance for progressives to further break down their prescribed roles for man and woman in American society. They won’t say it explicitly, but these fears and ideologies underlie every move they make against contraceptive rights.
Correspondingly, Republicans have worked to keep the voices of women out of the contraceptive controversy. One of the most heinous and infamous examples came in late February when the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform staged a hearing on the contraceptive rule named “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State.” The proceedings clearly focused on the Obama administration’s ruling, but Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) avoided the topic of contraception altogether, even avoiding to say the word itself throughout the hearing. What’s more, the five-person panel of religious leaders assembled did not include one woman. As former President of Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Sandra Fluke remarked after being prevented from testifying, “Chairman Issa felt that the topic of contraception was not relevant to a debate about contraceptive policy.”
Indeed, Representative Issa—the man who orchestrated the hearings criticizing a planned Islamic community center in Manhattan last year as well as the eviction of Occupy DC due to supposed environmental concerns—cares little for the reproductive needs of women. He saw a chance to score political points with his base and take part in one of his favorite Capitol Hill activities—inaccurately trashing the President. His kangaroo court of five quasi-informed misogynists had nothing of substance to say on the rule, and repeatedly misrepresented it as a directive for their institutions to provide mandatory birth control to women. Their allegiances lie with protecting their extreme interpretations of each of their religions and limiting the sexual freedom of women. It was a display of a structurally violent system at its worst—unhealthy and reactionary beliefs being forced on a group who are denied representation or even a voice in the process. Far from actually taking women’s health into consideration, conservatives are attempting to institutionalize only the viewpoint of the most zealously religious males.
Ultimately, the debate has degenerated into a poker game for political capital, with Republican officials gambling women’s right to affordable healthcare. Because these issues don’t affect men nearly as much as women, the patriarchal structure that still governs this country twists the argument into paranoid claims of religious persecution and immorality. Really, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion if we actually let those affected by the policy shape it. But, as Sandra Fluke said in the testimony she was supposed to give to Issa’s committee, “When you let university administrators or other employers, rather than women and their doctors, dictate whose medical needs are good enough and whose are not, a woman’s health takes a back seat to a bureaucracy focused on policing her body.”