When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fought it out to win the Democrats’ nomination for Presidential Candidate in 2008, the claim that “Americans are more misogynist than racist” was used as a street-level indicator of who would triumph. As we know Obama won, though whether or not this proves the observation is impossible to determine.
In the 2012 Republican battle for nomination, religion plays a central role, to the extent that the party is referred to by some US media as God’s Own Party, or, the American Faith Party. Professing your faith, once a no-no in US politics, is now de rigueur for Republican candidates who represent a party comprised in large part of Catholic traditionalists, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and charismatic protestants; some strands of Judaism, and Mormons. What these disparate religious groups share is faith in the power of religious values to create a better country, and in some instances, a belief that God’s law should govern society. The belief in a shared ultimate vision for the ordering of human existence, and the subordination of human experience to dogma and doctrinal claims are hallmarks of right-wing religious beliefs. Now for the first time in US history the core identity of a political party is “the profession of a religious faith in politics.” In other words, God’s Own Party is dedicated to a mystical imperative that supersedes all other concerns: faith.
Abortion and gay marriage are two of the fundamental issues that provoke anxiety and uncertainty in supporters of the AFP. Some commentators see the origins of the new party back in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when he made efforts to appeal to the Bible belt following the Roe v Wade decision on abortion. Since that decision, religious groups have felt themselves particularly alienated from politics, and disgruntled that religion apparently had no role in determining an aspect of public policy about which they held zealous views.
Hillary Clinton, now US Secretary of State, recently made the following comments:
Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me. But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women. They want to control how we dress. They want to control how we act. They even want to control the decisions we make about our own health and bodies. Yes, it is hard to believe that even here at home, we have to stand up for women’s rights and reject efforts to marginalize any one of us, because America needs to set an example for the entire world.
Given current conditions, the US is far from setting an example to the entire world in the matter of women’s reproductive rights.
Clinton is required to refrain from commentary on domestic politics in her role as Secretary of State, however it’s clear that’s she’s referring to what New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd describes as an “insane bout of mass misogyny” perpetrated by G.O.P. leaders in their efforts to outdo one another in selling their religious conservative credentials to voters.
The personal consequences of this insanity for one woman are detailed in this devastating account of her experiences in Texas, after new laws were introduced requiring certain procedures before a woman may undergo a termination. Women are compelled to have an ultrasound, during which they are legally required to listen while a doctor is legally required to describe the foetus they are carrying. They must then wait 24 hours before termination, presumably to give them time to change their minds after hearing this description, and in some states, the foetal heartbeat. In the case of Carolyn Jones described in the link, a nurse turned up the volume of a radio in an attempt to drown out the doctor’s words and spare Ms Jones some anguish. One can only imagine the toll these laws take on the staff of women’s health clinics, as well as the patients.
Doctors are then legally required (under threat of losing their license) to read out a list of the dangers of abortion, including the discredited claim also made by religious groups in Australia, most recently on ABC’s The Drum, that there is an increased chance of breast cancer after a termination.
Seven US states require that an abortion provider perform an ultrasound on each woman seeking an abortion, and then require the provider to offer the woman the opportunity to view the image. In most states she is permitted to “turn her eyes away.” This legislation is based on the paternalistic notion that women might not know what pregnancy means, and having the foetus described, hearing its heartbeat and viewing an ultrasound will educate them. The desired outcome is that after this compulsory education, a woman will change her mind, refuse to terminate the pregnancy, and carry the foetus to term.
Some of these requirements have been in place in some states since the mid 1990’s. There hasn’t been any noticeable decline in the numbers of women seeking abortions, indeed some figures indicate an increase, especially the figures used by the anti-choice campaigners, who often claim an “epidemic” is underway. It’s generally agreed by abortion providers that women have made up their minds about termination before arriving at their clinics, and no matter how they are tortured, are disinclined to change their minds.
Many women seeking abortions have already given birth, and are well aware of what they are doing. Apparently, according to anti-choice activists, even when a woman has carried a child to term she still can’t be trusted to know what she is planning to do. Most insidious is the Orwellian co-option of language to justify these last-minute efforts at re-education under the guise of “informed consent.” The “Women’s Right to Know Act” is the title of the legislation, a title that implies a woman hasn’t got a clue in the first place, and that information is being deliberately withheld from her by abortion providers.
And then there is the “post abortion grief” argument so beloved by some activists in Australia:
Abortion foes have long focused on what they allege are its negative mental health consequences. For decades, they have charged that having an abortion causes mental instability and even may lead to suicide, and despite consistent repudiations from the major professional mental health associations, they remain undeterred.
Neither the American Psychological Association nor the American Psychiatric Association recognizes so-called post-abortion traumatic stress syndrome as grounded in clinical evidence. As these bodies apparently are willing to recognize just about anything as a syndrome, the fact that they refuse to grant credence to this particular “syndrome” is significant.
As I wrote here, there is a continuum of reactions to the experience of abortion, and none of them should be extrapolated to prove one thing or another, and certainly not to claim that “post abortion syndrome” is an argument for outlawing abortion.
An attitude typical of Republicans who support the AFP is encapsulated in this comment on abortion: “We can’t ever think that a fetus is somehow undesirable or even disposable,” said Justine Schmiesing, a mother of seven who noted that she does not “contracept.” “We don’t want government to act in ways that ignore life, and that is why we are speaking up.”
The Republican party’s focus on women’s reproductive rights (contraception is also under fire, but that’s another whole article) as a political battleground does not augur well for US women, especially in the southern states, as the fallout from new laws causes a cut in federal funding that affects all health services for low-income women:
After Texas blocked abortion providers’ participation in its Medicaid Women’s Health Program, the White House officially notified the state Thursday afternoon that it will pull all funds from the program, which totalled about $39 million last year.
The Medicaid program offered a wide range of health services to women who otherwise would be unable to afford them. Texas refused to allow any abortion provider to participate in this program, despite the fact that clinics providing abortion such as Planned Parenthood, also offer a multitude of other services. As federal law already forbids the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, this action is purely political. As I wrote here in April 2011:
The call for de-funding was justified by Republicans and prominent Tea Party supporters such as Sarah Palin as necessary to prevent taxpayers’ money being used to provide abortions. Palin tweeted that “the country’s going broke, we can’t AFFORD cowboy poetry and subsidised abortion.” In fact, some 3 per cent of Planned Parenthood’s total services deal with abortion, and that 3 per cent is restricted to terminating pregnancies that are a consequence of rape, incest, and those that are a threat to the mother’s life. The use of federal funds for any other type of abortion is already illegal. Republican anti-abortion spin reframes Planned Parenthood as a major provider of subsidised abortion, and so determined are conservatives forces to ban the procedure they were prepared to not only close down the government’s ability to financially function, but to deny all other health services provided for poor and low-income women by the PP health centres.
Not only is this a war on women, it’s also a class war.
The Republican party is today dominated by presidential candidates fuelled by a sense of higher purpose, who market themselves as agents of God, chosen to guide America back to the path of righteousness from which it has apparently so grievously strayed. Society must be re-shaped to fit their doctrinal mold, because to them, doctrine is more valid than human experience. The differences between the religious faiths represented in GOP are temporarily suspended in the interests of attaining the greater good.
What is alarming is that gaining control over women’s bodies has once again come to represent attaining the greater good. That women will suffer in the political/religious struggle for the imagined ideal is irrelevant, as it is women who allegedly most grievously transgress this ideal. It is women, specifically women’s sexuality, that obstructs those who seek a god-fearing society.
After all, central to the US pledge of allegiance, piped by every school child in America every morning, is the phrase “ one country under God.” God’s Own Party is determined to make America one country under God, and if you’re a woman, and even more if you’re a poor woman, you will be crushed in the righteous pursuit of the imposition of God’s will.
As Wendy Kaminer puts it in the Atlantic:
Would we tolerate a religious right to refuse treatment or accommodation on the basis of race as readily as we tolerate a religious right to refuse reproductive health care? Of course not. Your right to act on your religious beliefs is not absolute; it’s weighed against the rights that your actions would deny to others. Today, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, claims of religious freedom tend to outweigh claims of reproductive freedom. But that is a consequence of history, politics, and culture and is subject to change. The balance of power is not divinely ordained.
The religious right in US politics doesn’t attempt to conceal its agendas. One doesn’t have to ask where they’re coming from, they’re only too happy to tell you. If ever there was an argument for being informed of the religious beliefs of politicians and public figures who seek to influence policy, the US situation is it. Even the US Constitution, so clear on the separation of church and state, has become irrelevant in the face of renewed religious determination to control women’s reproductive health. In the southern states, it looks as if they’re succeeding.