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USA: What the War over Contraception is Really About: Control over Women’s Bodies

Monday 12 March 2012, by siawi3

by Ruth Rosen

- Source: History News Network
- March 7, 2012

For weeks, bewildered Americans have witnessed politicians
debate whether or not contraception should be covered by
President’s Obama’s new health care plan. On March 1, after
some of the most bizarre theatrical antics remembered in
this nation’s political history, the U.S. Senate finally
interrupted this surreal soap opera with a cliff hanger. By
only two votes, they defeated an amendment that would have
allowed religious employers to refuse to pay for the
contraception of their employees.

The pilot episode of the drama began on February 16, when
President Obama announced that all the employers of all
institutions, regardless of their religious affiliation,
would have to pay for contraception. When the Catholic
Church and right-wing fringe went ballistic, he compromised
and said that if an institution felt it was violating its
religious beliefs, then the insurance company would have to

But even that compromise was insufficient. In the weeks
that followed, the Republicans launched a war on
contraception. They told women that the appropriate birth
control pill was an aspirin held by tightly-grasped knees;
they created a religious "hearing" on contraception made up
of all men; and right-wing radio pundit Rush Limbaugh called
a Georgetown University law student, who had defended
contraception, a "slut" and a "prostitute." "No drama
Obama" only intensified the plot when he personally called
the student and thanked her for supporting his health plan.

Every day brought new and unbelievable episodes in this
weird melodrama. In Virginia, the legislature passed a
bill that would require a pregnant woman seeking an abortion
to have an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina so she
would really know she was carrying a human being. The
Governor at first agreed, but then, attacked for humiliating
pregnant women, dithered about what kind of bill he would
sign. Some opponents, of course, genuinely believe that
contraception is the same thing as abortion - the murder of
a human being. Some may even realize that less
contraception results in more abortions and more government
expenditures for unwanted children. The Republicans
certainly know that the vast majority of Americans,
including Catholics, support birth control, but they just
couldn’t stop themselves. They thought they had found a way
to defeat the President.

But they were wrong.

Women and independents tend to support birth control. In
fact, by March 1, 63% of those polled supported the
President’s compromise. Liberal groups mobilised all across
the country, noting that the right-wing wants an unobtrusive
government unless it involves inserting a probe into a
woman’s body for an ultrasound. Senator Barbara Boxer
launched "one million Strong for Women," to make women’s
voice heard. Democrats, realising that the Republicans had
truly overreached, became positively giddy at how much they
had to gain if they could keep the debate simmering.

So, part of this soap opera was simply politics as the
loopy, right-wing fringe Republicans became intoxicated with
the possibility of electing one of two candidates, both of
whom oppose contraception and abortion. (Although former
Governor Mitt Romney flip-flopped when he backed away from
his support of contraception and joined the Republican
opposition a few hours later).

So what’s really going on?

The Republican party, for its part, framed the fight as one
of religious freedom and freedom of speech, protected by the
first amendment to the constitution. Democrats and women’s
rights advocates responded that it was exclusively about
women’s health care.

The media, with all its stenographic sophistry, uncritically
quoted the language of both sides. The New York Times, for
example, said that " the furor over President Obama’s birth
control mandate has swiftly entered a new plane, with
supporters and opponents alike calling the subject a potent
weapon for the November elections and taking it to the
public in campaigns to shape the issue---is it about
religious liberty or women’s health?"

Actually everyone has missed the real story.

What neither side wants to say is that this is a counter-
reformation, an attempt to return women to the early 1960s,
before birth control pill existed and the Supreme Court, in
Griswold v.Connecticut (1965), established the right of
contraception in the United States. In short, it was a
nostalgic effort to return to a time when a middle class man
could support a family, women knew their place, Georgetown
University law students were mostly men, and African
Americans could not vote, let alone become President. It was
a time of male and racial supremacy, before the civil rights
and women’s movements changed the political culture of this
country and economic changes made a two-income family

At stake in 2012 is the right of a woman to control her own
fertility, her own reproductive choices and therefore, to
lead an independent life. This is a battle that has raged
since the late 19th century. After abortion became legal in
1973, the Republican party inserted an anti-abortion plank
into its 1980 platform and ever since, every Republican
candidate has had to pass a litmus test of opposing abortion
in order to run for president.

For most of human history, sexuality and reproduction have
been intricately yoked together. Birth control,
particularly the Pill, ruptured that link and gave women the
right to enjoy sex without the goal of reproduction. When
the Supreme Court formally ratified that rupture by making
abortion legal in Roe v. Wade, (1973), many people in this
country trembled at the possible changes women’s sexual
independence might bring. By then, the women’s movement had
challenged and changed laws and customs that governed the
daily lives of women in both the work place and at home. The
idea of women’s sexual freedom polarised the nation, with
both men and women advocating for different choices.

In short, the war over contraception during the last bizarre
month was never about religious freedom or women’s health
care. It was about controlling women’s right to control
their own bodies and to make their own sexual and
reproductive choices.

Hardly anyone feels free to say this. Opponents of women’s
sexual freedom talk about free speech or religious freedom
when what they really want to do is to repeal everything the
women’s movement’s changed. Supporters of women’s right to
make their own sexual and reproductive choices know they
must emphasise women’s health care. Even though
contraception and abortion are a central part of that health
care, they know they must remain mum about women’s sexual

This soap opera is hardly over. In fact, we are now seeing
re-reruns of this never-ending drama. Some of us remember
that in 1969, a feminist group called Redstockings disrupted
a New York State hearing on whether abortion should be
legal. The panel included a dozen men and one nun. The
women’s effort to be heard was thwarted when the hearing was

Today, contraception and abortion are legal, but state by
state, laws are chipping away at women’s access to both
contraception and abortion. The truth is, this is the last
gasp of a patriarchal counter-reformation that is still
alive, mobilized and, most importantly, well-funded. Stay
tuned, as they say. The soap opera is far from over.

[Ruth Rosen, Professor Emerita of History at the University
of California, Davis, is a scholar-in-residence at the
Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements at
the University of California, Berkeley. She is a former
columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco
Chronicle. Her most recent book is "The World Split Open:
How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America." This
article is cross-posted from openDemocracy