About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, May 02, 2012
The war on women
I traveled home to New York City this past Saturday to speak at a rally organized by Unite Women, a widely endorsed outfit working to band together people against the recent attacks on women’s rights — in part by orchestrating marches and rallies across the United States on April 28.** For all intents and purposes, the event in New York City was a success, as were — at least according to news reports — events in Arizona, Virginia, Connecticut, and Texas.
Unfortunately, I noticed in the lead up to April 28 that many of my secularist and liberal religionist friends who I would otherwise expect to support women’s rights had not embraced the term “war on women,” and thus were avoiding (whether actively or passively) the movement fighting under its banner. I’m not sure why this is or was the case. Perhaps they don’t think there is a war going on, or maybe the language strikes them as inflammatory (it is, a bit) and they don’t like conflict.
Well, I think there is much evidence to support the term “war on women,” and I think it’s an enormous mistake to avoid the conflict. So, I would like to explore a couple of major anti-women legislative actions and ways that people can get involved in the hope that those who have been sitting on the sidelines will decide to engage.
The foremost evidence for the “war on women” is found in recent attacks on reproductive rights by the religious right. In fact, these attacks alone could quality as a war on women. State lawmakers set a record in 2011 for the most anti-reproductive rights provisions enacted in a single year, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Legislators introduced more than 1,100 provisions last year, and enacted 135 of them. To help put this in perspective, 89 such provisions were enacted in 2010, 77 in 2009, and only 34 in 2005. Unfortunately, this pace has not slowed much.
The measures include, but are not limited to:
> “Personhood” proposals that would allow states to completely outlaw abortion, and even emergency contraception. These have had success in states such as Virginia and Oklahoma, and are now being pushed in Nevada.
> “Fetal pain” laws — now in place in Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama — that ban abortion after 20 weeks.
> Laws that require physicians to perform ultrasounds, and then show and describe the image of the fetus to the woman asking for an abortion.
> Mandatory waiting periods — some as long as 72 hours — between ultrasounds and abortions, which negatively impact women who are poor, without transportation, and/or live in rural areas. Keep in mind that 87 percent of U.S. counties do not have an abortion clinic.
> New regulations on abortion clinics, regarding things like the amount of space in janitorial rooms, and other requirements, which make it physically or financially impossible for many abortion clinics to remain open.
> Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides a wide range of critical reproductive health services to women across the U.S.
As I’ve previously written, these attacks are wrong on several fronts. There are no serious philosophical arguments in favor of extending the full range of moral or legal rights to embryos and fetuses. We do not grant such rights to mere “human life,” such as small collections of cells, but to beings that have at least some degree of sentience, self-awareness, or agency. Fertilized human eggs clearly lack all three, as do fetuses until at least 28 weeks, if not later. Moreover, the “fetal pain” argument is moot, as only 1.4 percent of abortions happen after 21 weeks, and women who receive late term abortions usually do so because of health reasons (in which case the interests of the mother, a fully grown human being, win out) or due to difficulty in setting one up (thanks to anti-reproductive rights efforts!).
Furthermore, religious doctrines simply have no place in public policy. They are either untrue or too specifically sectarian for law in a pluralistic society with a secular constitution — or both. In sum, women ought to have access to full reproductive health care, and the privacy to make a decision over her body with her doctor.
Fortunately, many of the aforementioned reproductive rights laws have been struck down in courts as clearly violating the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, and several later decisions. Yet while attacks on reproductive rights merit serious consideration, lawmakers have taken much broader political action against women that provides even stronger evidence for a “war on women.”
Consider just these five examples:
> A large number of Senate and House Republicans opposed the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides women greater legal avenues to pursue equal pay lawsuits (which are unfortunately all too necessary).
> Some Republicans have said they will continue to work to repeal the law.
> Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker recently repealed the state’s equal pay act, charging that it could “clog up the legal system.”
> Florida Gov. Rick Scott (who we’ve discussed before) last week vetoed $1.5 million in funding for state rape crisis centers.
> And Senate and House Republicans are currently holding up the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Equality is among the most basic of moral ideas, so it would seem uncontroversial to say that men and women ought to be treated equally, and that we should act to reverse situations in which this is not the case. As evidenced above, apparently many elected officials do not accept this proposition. They should be ashamed of themselves.
Surprisingly, many of those prosecuting the war on women are women. Consider the statements and positions of just a couple of female lawmakers or political figures across the U.S: Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-New Hampshire), Rep. Michele Bachman (R-Minnesota), South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Yet, whether or not all women agree with these actions, they are negatively affecting all women. First, it is hard, if not impossible, to predict how one’s feelings might change regarding abortion depending on the circumstances, such as threats to the mother’s health or severe birth defects. Even the wife of Rick Santorum, who believes abortion is always wrong, apparently took advantage of her legal access to abortion-type services. As such, I think it helps everyone to keep abortion accessible, and let people decide if they need to partake or not. Or else you get horror stories like this. Second, the attacks on outfits such as Planned Parenthood have an impact not just on reproductive health, but on the overall quality of a woman’s health. Yes, Planned Parenthood performs reproductive services, but they also provide a wide range of health services, such as cancer screenings, regular check ups, contraception coverage, STD-related work, and more. Lastly, we live in a bad economy in which we all have lesser choices, and most women have fewer choices than men merely because of their gender. Their choices become even fewer when they lose control of their reproductive systems and are subjected to unfair economic situations.
All of this is why I think one can reasonably argue that there is an ongoing social phenomenon that could be described as a war on women’s rights. It doesn’t matter whether the war is being waged by the religious right or by economic conservatives, or whether these lawmakers are doing it to distract from their lack of solutions for real political problems. It is happening. The question then becomes: what should we do? I think there are two answers.
Increasing the scope and turning up the volume of the conversation on women’s rights is an important first step, and the Unite Women marches and rallies on April 28 hopefully helped. But it can’t stop there, and there are plenty of other things one can do. Write letters to the editor. Write and comment on blog posts and online news articles. Attend local hearings and public forums and voice your opinions. Post links to Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, and whatever other social networks you use. Do whatever you can to spread the message.
But even that is not enough. A majority of Americans agree about reproductive rights and gender equality, yet a small group of lawmakers still works to pass opposition measures in Congress and statehouses across the U.S. This is why we need not just social action, but also political action. And voting every couple of years and hoping it all turns out well does not suffice. Sign up for and fill out action alerts as much as possible (here, here, and here) and let lawmakers know that you oppose or support pending legislation. Call, write, or schedule meetings with them to state and explain your views. Write to federal agencies when comment periods are open on federal regulations and rules. Hold them accountable. Tell them that they should either support your views, or face the prospect of looking for a new job next election.
You might think that all of this is relatively inconsequential, but that is not the case. The more that elected officials hear from you, the more they have to consider your points of view. Remember, they want to keep their job. Also, the more that the public hears the logic and reasons for reproductive rights and gender equality, the greater the chances that those who agree might get involved, and those who don’t — either those who sit on the fence or those who lean right — might actually learn something and shift their views. Which means that politicians might have to consider your viewpoints sooner than they thought. The kinds of social and political action I’m discussing here do not take as much time as you may think, and there is no guarantee that anyone else will take up the cause. Simply put, a couple of moments of your time could make a difference. Indeed, anything less than vigorous involvement in the political process would leave reproductive rights and gender equality to the religious right and economic conservatives. And we’ve seen the damage they can do.
** You can read the text of my speech here.