war, part two

by mraynes

since the “war on women” began i have heard several friends, pundits, politicians express disbelief that access to contraception and women’s empowerment are in any way correlated. this is a shocking assertion to me because research has consistently shown that women’s empowerment and reproductive freedom are inextricably tied.

With the advent of affordable, easily accessible and reliable contraception, pregnancy is no longer the defining fact of a woman’s life. For many Western women fertility is now a conscious choice and this single fact has opened worlds that were formally dominated by men—education, government, leadership, business—to the near equal participation of women. This has forced society to change its paradigms and rewrite the contracts on which gender roles and relations have traditionally been built.

So threatening reproductive freedom also threatens the gains women have made in education, government, leadership and business–once again, biology may become our destiny. And there are those who believe this should be the case (cough cough, Rick Santorum) who are desperately trying to shove the genie back in the bottle. Make no mistake, this is an ideology based on the dominance of men and there are dire consequences to returning to a world where women are hostage to their reproduction.

There is a growing body of evidence that shows that the status of women–and that includes women’s autonomy and reproductive freedom–dramatically predicts the incidence of violence against women. Researchers have quantified the status of women through four composite indices: women’s political participation, employment and earnings, economic autonomy and reproductive rights. States where women and men are the most unequal–where there are the highest number of restrictions on access to abortions–report the highest rates of violence against women. Similarly, the higher the status of women, the lower the rates of rape and domestic violence in a state.

There is a message that society sends when women are given full bodily autonomy–it is a message that women are fully human and have the right to physical integrity. This is why feminists and people who care about violence against women are so concerned about the war on women’s reproductive freedom. It isn’t just a fight about abortion rights–this a battle over women’s role in society. There is legitimate fear that the sustained “conversation” we’ve had about reproductive freedom has cast doubt in the minds of some on whether women have the right to bodily autonomy and are thereby, fully human. Indeed, America is already seeing the fruits of the war on women in policies that threaten the physical security of women.

Topeka, Kansas, for example, decriminalized domestic violence. Virginia proposed a law in February that would require a transvaginal ultrasound for all women seeking an abortion with or without their consent. Some compared this to state sponsored rape, saying that under any other circumstance the penetration of a woman without her consent would be illegal. There was not even an exemption for women who were seeking an abortion as a result of rape. After tremendous public outcry, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell reversed course and sent the bill back to the legislature without his signature. However, this same legislation has been implemented in Texas and proposed in Idaho. Or the Violence Against Women Act, a piece of legislation that has been reauthorized by unanimous consent every time it has come before the Senate, now might not get renewed because Republicans have refused to reauthorize the bill as it stands.

It is no coincidence that what started as a sustained, coordinated effort against reproductive rights has taken the country to a place where the de-criminalization of domestic violence is seen as an appropriate measure to solve fiscal problems, the Violence Against Women Act can be gutted or not renewed because of the opposition of a mainstream political party, and where several state legislatures and governors approve of a measure to penetrate a woman without her consent so that she can receive a medical procedure that is still legal in this country. The war on women not only devalues women before the law but it also jeopardizes how American society views the status of women.

We do not have data yet on whether there has been a uptick in violence perpetrated against women but it will be surprising to absolutely no one if there is. Because while male pundits and politicians have been arguing over whether women have the right to control their own bodies, perpetrators have already decided that they don’t. And the fact that this is even an issue up for debate only validates the misogynistic worldview of abusers and rapists.

This fight is about so much more than whether women have access to birth control through their medical insurance. This is about our humanity. Yes, birth control is connected to female empowerment–it has allowed the fortunate among us to get an education, pursue a career or just be better mothers to the children we already have–but it has given us more than that. Reproductive freedom has set our status as women at equal to men’s, it has given us physical autonomy and security and made us fully human in the eyes of the law and society. If we lose this war, we will have lost everything.

Academic References

  1. Kawachi, I., Kennedy, B. P., Gupta, V. & Prothrow-Stith, D. (1999). Women’s status and the health of women and men: A view from the states. Social Science & Medicine, 48, 21-32.
  2. Koenen, K. C., Lincoln, A. & Appleton, A. (2006). Women’s status and child well-being: A statelevel analysis. Social Science & Medicine, 63, 2999-3012.
  3. Yllo, K. (1983). Sexual equality and violence against wives in American states. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 14, 67-86.
  4. Yodanis, C. L. (2004). Gender inequality, violence against women, and fear: A cross-national test of the feminist theory of violence against women. Journal of Interpersonal Violence19, 655-675.