Our Bodies, Our Choices

In February 2011, President Barack Obama announced that March would forever be Women’s History Month. In that speech, Obama said, “We must carry forward the work of the women who came before us and ensure our daughters have no limits on their dreams, no obstacles to their achievements, and no remaining ceilings to shatter.”

A year later, February and what we’ve seen of March 2012 could be marked as the beginning of an all-out contraceptives war in the House and the Senate on both state and federal levels as well as a time in which rulings are being made that directly defy the decision made in the landmark Roe v. Wade case. Women’s bodies, health and sexuality are being brought under public political scrutiny. How about those glass ceilings?

The catalyst for the outbreak of the contraceptives debate began in August 2011 when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced new guidelines under the Affordable Care Act requiring health insurance to cover women’s preventative services (such as birth control, screenings, and family planning support and counseling). Those who supported the new measures saw the guidelines as a way to save money in the long run — after all, it’s easier to provide a birth control pill than to support a child from infancy to adulthood.

However, dissenters (largely employers with religious affiliations) saw the provision of birth control as a violation of their moral codes. Despite protest, Obama upheld the ruling in January 2012 by saying that health insurance providers must be responsible for the services if the employer declines. This set the contraceptives debate into motion.

In Virginia, lawmakers tried to pass a bill that required all women seeking abortions to have an invasive, transvaginal ultrasound before being granted the right to terminate the pregnancy. They backed off due to public outcry and took out the transvaginal part of the ultrasound. How nice of them.

In the same week, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a “personhood” bill that would grant a fertilized egg the same legal rights and protections as a person, thus making abortions and some forms of birth control illegal. State Senate sent the measure back to committee, stalling it until 2013.

So should we breathe easy because these measures have been altered and/or shelved? Absolutely not. Think a little bit more about a required transvaginal ultrasound and it equates to de jure, institutionalized rape — if rape is to be defined as the forceful insertion (in this case, at the hand of the law) of an object into someone’s vaginal tract. And granting a fertilized egg personhood suddenly puts the life of a cluster of cells above that of the woman hosting it. Now, doesn’t that sound a little backwards?

Virginia’s not alone. In January, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Texas legislature that requires a woman seeking abortion to have a sonogram and listen to a detailed description of the fetus (including its stage of development and heart beat) before the procedure. The Arizona state Senate passed a bill that protects doctors from malpractice suits if they withhold information that might lead a woman to terminating a pregnancy (meaning, they don’t get in trouble for withholding information, something that can’t possibly fall under the Hippocratic Oath).

However, the biggest problem being faced in the contraceptives debate is not simply the debate itself — it’s the representation of women that is coming to light because of these debates. By now, everyone has seen the House Oversight Committee hearing’s all-male birth control panel. Certainly there is a lack of female senators, representatives and politically vocal women, but is there no one woman who could have spoken? What message does it send to women that their voice is not even worthy of their own health issues?

To add to the oppression coming to light, Rush Limbaugh happened, as he will. Georgetown Law student Sandra Fluke spoke in favor of mandated birth control coverage in a testimony before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. Then on his generally inflammatory broadcast, Limbaugh called her a slut and said, “She wants to be paid to have sex.” The sad thing is that Limbaugh is not the only one who holds this belief. Forget the fact that birth control regulates hormone cycles, alleviates extreme PMS symptoms and helps people plan families, obviously birth control is only around so everyone can have excessive pre- and extra-marital sex.

Women have been considered the moral gatekeepers of sexual purity for centuries, but why must this still be the case? How is a woman wanting birth control coverage indicative of promiscuity while a man’s “need” for erectile dysfunction medication is indicative of a health concern?

There is a term for this way of thinking: slut shaming, the imposition of shame onto a woman or girl for engaging in sexual activities and acknowledging sexual feelings. Whereas a man who has a lot of sex is still just a man, a woman who expresses interest in sex is a slut.

The heart of this issue lies in differing codes of morality. As Jon Stewart said, “You’re confusing a war on religion with not always getting what you want. It’s called being a part of society.”

As is often true of issues in which the First Amendment is used as a crutch, it seems that some wording has been ignored. What is often boiled down to “freedom of religion” is actually: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Just as everyone has the right to practice their religion, everyone else has the right not to be mandated by any one set of moral codes that may or may not apply to them. If women can’t keep the government from setting up camp in their reproductive system, at least keep churches and biblical scriptures out.

Let’s try to make progress in the 21st century instead of sending civil rights back several decades, shall we?

 

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