Reproductive freedom is about more than sex

By Hannah Sparks

Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Capitol in Austin, Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry signed the abortion restriction bill, House Bill 2, Thursday, July 18, 2013. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/MCT)
Abortion rights supporters demonstrate outside the Capitol in Austin, Texas, where Gov. Rick Perry signed the abortion restriction bill, House Bill 2, Thursday, July 18, 2013. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/MCT)

Comedian Groucho Marx once said, “All people are born alike, except Democrats and Republicans.” And this is becoming increasingly evident, as it appears that prominent conservative Republicans are living in an alternate universe as far as basic concepts about women’s health and reproductive rights go.

To these pundits and politicians, and as appropriate to their level of understanding about womenfolk, females may as well be Martians.

Recently, moderate conservatives have been literally begging the most outspoken members of the Republican Party to stop making ill-informed, offensive comments about rape, abortion, contraception and other topics pertaining to women, of which there have been a plethora in recent years. Author Kate Obenshain implored her male colleagues at the Conservative Political Action Conference in March to “please think before you make pithy, obnoxious comments,” and to give women the floor on issues like contraception.

Mike Huckabee is the latest politician to jump on the bandwagon. In January, in a roundabout way, he accused women seeking insurance coverage of birth control of being unable to “control their libido” without the help of “Uncle Sugar,” who is apparently the perverted brother of Uncle Sam.

But even if conservative pundits were to stop faking expertise in areas which they clearly do not understand, there would still be serious legislative debate on reproductive rights in this country. Though they’re based in the same flawed logic, this debate and its resulting laws pose a bigger practical problem for women than the palpable ignorance displayed in comments like Huckabee’s.

Abortion legislation that went into effect in Texas on Oct. 31 (and was challenged in court by Planned Parenthood in January) requires all doctors performing the procedure to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, mandates various forms of counseling necessitating repeat trips to clinics, bans abortions via medication and prohibits them after 20 weeks of pregnancy, among other provisions.

These restrictions have already caused approximately a third of clinics to close in Texas; when a separate provision of the law goes into effect in Oct. 2014, that number will be reduced to six, with a seventh under construction by Planned Parenthood.

That’s seven abortion clinics for a state comprising 268,820 square miles and a population of 26.4 million. Obviously, these laws severely limit access to reproductive services for women in that vast state: It is estimated that they will deter 22,000 Texan women from getting abortions in 2014.

Planned Parenthood argued unsuccessfully in court that the admitting privileges condition was not based in medical necessity: Abortions are among the safest medical procedures (women are 14 times more likely to die in childbirth than during an abortion), with complications occurring with the same frequency as with wisdom tooth removal. Indeed, it appears that the passage of these laws was simply an underhanded motion to force clinics to close.

It’s not just Texas: Ohio has some of the strictest abortion laws in the nation and the Missouri state legislature will debate 32 new anti-abortion laws in 2014. In March, it passed a bill forcing patients to watch a video created by the state’s Health Department before undergoing the procedure, tripling the waiting period to 72 hours and mandating that providers be inspected four times a year rather than just once.

The same people who rail against an overbearing government, who fight against gun control and in support of “religious freedom” laws, want to take the most basic of rights – bodily autonomy – from women, under the guise of health and safety.

They’re the same people who won’t raise the minimum wage or take action on income inequality because they don’t think that it’s any of the government’s business.

The morality of American women, apparently, is. If we want to talk about cherry-picking issues, here is the paradigm case.

Conservative backlash against reproductive freedoms do not stem from any real conscientious objections or concerns, but from an inability to accept a reality in which women have sexual agency.

More than 99 percent of women 15-44 who are sexually active have used birth control, but cheap shots are being taken at that as well, from a different but similarly unintelligible position.

The birth control debate has recently been framed in terms of religious objections to provisions of the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to provide health insurance, including birth control, to employees as part of their earned compensation package.

In a game of news cycle catch-phrases, the Right’s “war on women” was pitted against the Left’s “war on religion” at the Supreme Court on March 25, when it heard arguments in the case of Hobby Lobby, a craft store run by devout Christians, which argued that the ACA’s birth control provision violates their religious beliefs.

Several momentous questions are at play in this case. One is whether corporations can be said to have religious views. Another is what kind of slippery slope a finding for Hobby Lobby would lead us down. The point I want to drive home, however, is that reproductive rights are not an issue of sin or sex, as religious objectors and pro-life advocates would have you believe, but of physical autonomy.

Abortion, contraception and other reproductive rights have narratives extending beyond the offensively simplistic picture of women wanting to have sex without having babies. That’s why the myriad attempts to verbally shame women into obedience, or to limit their rights in more tangible ways, have failed again and again.

It is not about the ability to have sex without consequences. It’s about the right to control one’s body, and thus, one’s destiny – one of the most basic, inalienable rights of (wo)mankind, legally sanctioned or not.

No matter what laws are passed, women who do not want to be pregnant will find ways not to be, whether it’s in a hygienic clinic or the stereotypical “back alley.” What our leaders need to learn is that when it comes between their beliefs and my bodily autonomy, my body wins every time.

Governmental approval just means that fewer women will die fighting that battle.

Maybe someday, American lawmakers from all parties – who purport to care so deeply for women’s health – will see that and legislate for that, rather than for outdated, oppressive beliefs that have no place in the political sphere.

Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]

Updated 05/27/2014: A previous version of this column referred to “‘Uncle Sugar,’ who is apparently the perverted brother known as Uncle Sam” and has been changed to read “who is apparently the perverted brother of Uncle Sam.” Also, “More than 99 percent of women 15 and 44 who sexually active have used birth control” has been edited to “More than 99 percent of women 15-44 who are sexually active have used birth control.”