Why women’s rights are under siege

By pandering to the religious, Democrats and women's groups have lost ground to the theocrats

Topics: Reproductive Rights, Religion, Catholics,

Why women's rights are under siege (Credit: iStockphoto/JerryPDX)

Twenty years ago, I spent part of election night in 1992 at the Washington headquarters of the National Organization for Women. The mood was ecstatic, ebullient and — dare I say it? — full of hope. The election of Bill Clinton was a victory for women, a new chapter after four years of George H.W. Bush, the Anita Hill hearings and the retrograde agenda of the Moral Majority.

Twenty years later, it’s hard for me to look back on that night as auguring a new era of women’s influence in American politics. On women’s sexual autonomy, we’re going backward, and until Democrats, their strategists and major women’s groups get a grip on how to respond to the demands of religion in our politics, I fear that backward trend will continue.

The Republicans of late have been trying to dial us back to the dark ages in new and astonishing ways. In 2012, a major presidential candidate and members of Congress question the wisdom of the 1965 Supreme Court case that invalidated criminal bans on the sale of birth control. Congressional Republicans are holding hearings on whether public health initiatives designed to make lifesaving, life-enhancing, long-accepted contraceptives widely available to women offend the sensibilities of the Catholic bishops. The papal encyclical Humanae Vitae has been entered into the Congressional Record in an attempt to prove that health policy must yield to official Catholic teaching on birth control.

Nearly 40 years after Roe v. Wade, we’re seeing “right to know” laws across the nation, which require a woman seeking an abortion to hear from her doctor a litany of warnings that have been disproven by medical evidence: that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, future infertility, depression, grief, anxiety, loss of self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, sexual dysfunction and substance abuse. It reads like a list of plagues God will rain down on a disobedient people.

And don’t forget that sonogram image. You must look at that image, whether it’s displayed via a probe in your vagina or the jelly on your belly.

You must look and be told, in effect: If you have an abortion, you are not the woman God designed you to be.

The role of religion in politics is as fraught a topic as one might imagine in a pluralistic democracy. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The Founders intended a secular government protecting the religious freedom of all, but over the past 40 years the Republican Party has evolved as the arm of a movement that insists the separation of church and state is a satanic, secularist purge of the pious. It doesn’t help when political reporters seem incapable of distinguishing Rick Santorum’s rant against church-state separation from a lament over loss of free expression.

The Republican position is now absolutist: We are a Christian nation (“Judeo-Christian,” when they’re feeling particularly magnanimous), and any challenges to that are reviled as anti-American. That’s why the Republicans who control the House Judiciary Committee see no irony in holding a hearing on the supposed threat to the Constitution from Shariah law, and later holding a hearing on how the contraception coverage requirement was a dire threat to (Christian) religious liberty.

Democrats and their allies, though, are largely stuck in a responsive muddle. In a bright spot, some of the Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee, notably New York’s Jerrold Nadler and Michigan’s John Conyers, came to this week’s hearing on “Executive Overreach: The HHS Mandate Versus Religious Liberty” armed with excellent preparation on religious exemptions, and held witnesses’ feet to the fire on constitutional questions. But the problems are deeper than the Republicans’ misrepresentation of the legal standards for religious conscience objections. The problem is that religion plays a role in health policy at all.

You Might Also Like

As Linda Hirshman and Irin Carmon have discussed in these pages, it remains to be seen whether the outrage over transvaginal probes will be enough to awaken a movement that will serve as a long-term backlash to violations of women’s reproductive autonomy, or merely a short-term effort to block the most physically intrusive of legislative initiatives.

At this moment, the mobilizing strategy of major women’s rights organizations asks their supporters to look at the contraception issue through a pinhole. NARAL Pro-Choice America, for example, offers a sample letter in opposition to the Blunt Amendment, which would permit any employer to raise any religious objection to insurance coverage, so that the CEO of a corporation would have the same religious conscience rights provided to churches themselves. Does NARAL object to this preposterously overly broad religious exemption? “Please do not vote to undermine basic health-care benefits that millions of women are counting on,” the plea reads.

The White House, for its part, still strives to satisfy the religious demands of conservatives. As false claims about Obama’s supposed “war on religion” raged, surrogates were dispatched to vouch for his Christianity. Pastor Joel Hunter, who regularly prays with the president, reassured readers of the Hill (i.e., political insiders) that Obama is indeed devout, and indeed committed to having religion play what Hunter portrayed as a positive role in policy, through the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

It feels like this: Obama stands firm on a policy relating to uteruses, and that must then be counteracted with testimonials about how religious he is. Just in case letting all those uteruses run free means he’s anti-religion.

Ten days after Obama was elected president, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne — one of the first pundits to jump on Obama for refusing to yield to Catholic opposition to the contraception coverage requirement — called on the president-elect to live up to his promise “to end the cultural and religious wars that have disfigured American politics for four decades.” The idea that Obama could wave away those cultural and religious wars seems, now even more than it did three and a half years ago, tragicomically naive. Especially because Dionne warned Obama not to allow “advocates of abortion rights to get in the way of his trying to build a new consensus.” Because, of course, they are the ones standing in the way of a harmonious union.

With hindsight, of course, Clinton’s “safe, legal and rare” formulation of 20 years ago has helped lead us down the path of taking into account religious objections to a legal medical procedure when deciding whether the state should interfere with a woman’s constitutional right to obtain such a procedure. Since that time, and especially since John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, calls for Democrats to accommodate religion have only become more pitched.

The current Republican excesses offer a golden opportunity for Democrats to expose them as not just opposed to women’s health, but to illustrate precisely why religion and policymaking are a toxic mix. It’s an opportunity that will be squandered with mere appeals for replacing the Republican brand of theo-politics with a supposedly kinder, gentler one.

Sarah Posner is the senior editor of Religion Dispatches, where she writes about politics. She is also the author of God's Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters" (PoliPoint Press, 2008).

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    DAYA  
    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    MORELLO   
    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CINDY   
    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CAPUTO   
    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    BOO   
    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    SOSO
    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    POUSSEY
    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    PENNSATUCKY
    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    CHANG
    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    HEALY
    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NORMA
    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    NICKI
    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>