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Who Is On The Bus And Who Is Under It: Notes From Congress’s Global War On Women

May 2, 2011, 11:01 am

Deny men health care in a political deal and see what happens!

Because it is April, and everything in university life has to be done in April even as the teaching commitments get jacked up to DEFCON 1, I am perpetually behind in my reading. So I didn’t get to Katha Pollitt’s excellent piece, “Women:  The Bus Rolls On” (The Nation, April 14 2011) until this morning.  In it, Pollitt points out that:

It’s getting awfully crowded underneath that bus. You know, the metaphorical one women keep getting thrown under, along with their rights, their health and their money. Women lost much of their insurance coverage for abortion during the fight over the healthcare reform bill last fall, but at least they got some good things out of it: coverage for millions of uninsured women, preventive care including breast and cervical cancer screenings, and a bar on refusing coverage for such pre-existing conditions as having been a rape or domestic violence victim.

But in the budget deal that the White House just struck with the GOP, those wheels just keep a-rollin’ over female bodied persons, specifically poor ones, who are of child-bearing age.  According to Pollitt’s article, “to keep Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, Democrats agreed to bar Washington, DC, from using its own revenues” (emphasis mine) ”to pay for abortion care for women on Medicaid. And in a tiny footnote, the final budget cuts Title X, the federal family-planning program, by $17 million.”  Congress can do this, as the government elected by District citizens shares its political authority with the federal government.

So on the day after Barack Obama announced the successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden, can we give a big cheer for democracy and freedom, those things the United States claims we have spent trillions of dollars to promote with military force since 2001?  Can we give a big yell to the first black president, who has been the first president to sign off on completely gutting public funds for the reproductive care of poor women right outside his door who are largely black?  Oh, the times we live in.

It is worth pointing out that this is the logical outcome of the Hyde Amendment, signed by President Jimmy Carter in the summer of 1977, which began the long march to slice away federal dollars from women’s reproductive care.  Feminists understood at the time that, while all of us were standing at that metaphoric bus stop, it was poor and minority women who would end up under the wheels.  As I argue in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Policy History,

Feminists rightly viewed Medicaid ineligibility as a partial retraction of Roe v. Wade (1973), since it would restrict access for poor women to safe termination of unwanted pregnancies. Practically speaking, restricting Medicaid would de-fund $600,000 worth of procedures in New York State
alone. In a memo to Carter, Karen Mulhauser, executive director of NARAL, accused him of believing that his religious and moral values were superior to those of “millions of Americans who support the right to choose.” Furthermore, since abortion was legal, Mulhauser argued, for a President who had pledged himself to supporting human rights around the globe to withdraw equal medical access for poor women in the United States was hypocrisy.*

Of course, the political terrain has changed dramatically since then.  We are now used to political strategies that shift the human rights burden to the private sector, not the least of which has been a decades-long war which has cost untold misery across several continents.  While I am not immune to a certain relief that Bin Laden is now unable to plan further mayhem, I find it difficult to celebrate, given what it has cost.  I’m not just talking about money and lives:  a chaotic and dangerous foreign policy has diverted much-needed attention to the fight for women’s rights, which have themselves been cynically deployed over the last decade as part of the casus belli.  Indeed, as the United States was being ginned up for an illegal war in the aftermath of 9/11, one strategy was to keep women in the overdeveloped world fully informed about the oppression of women in selected states like Iraq and Afghanistan.

These human rights violations against women were, and are real:  they have not been resolved as a result of horrific wars that have themselves inflicted terrible burdens on women.  The next time you are all psyched up about NATO’s intervention in Libya on behalf of freedom-loving rebels (and against a dictator who has been supported as a US ally since 9/11), ask yourself:  what is happening to women and children as boys and men rush off to the “front” with pocket knives, when they aren’t firing US-manufactured bullets into the air?  Furthermore, recent scandals in the private human rights sector demonstrate that delivering women’s rights into the hands of non-state actors, no matter how well intended, does not address fundamental inequities that are built into the law. 

What does this have to do with federal dollars for abortion and family planning in the United States?  Everything.  If the President and Congress can’t see the rights of women in the war zones they sustain  as fundamentally affected by US policies, it all starts with the fact that they can’t see the women in neighborhoods within a ten-mile radius of the halls of government either.

What can you do?  Yep, that’s right:  give money to the private non-profits.  The irony is just too much, isn’t it?  Go here to support the DC Abortion Fund; go here to make a gift to Planned Parenthood.
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*Mulhauser to Carter, July 17, 1977, Abortion 1/77-12/77, Box 1, Midge Costanza Papers, Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

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