Controlling Women’s Bodies

american burqaWhat the War over Contraception Is Really About: Control over Women’s Bodies

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 pay.

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 necessary.

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 freedom.

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 moved.

ruth rosen

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

Republished from openDemocracy.


  1. Ratjaws says

    Miss Rosen,
    As you indicate when saying “…the soap opera is far from over,” this whole social debate is a soap opera. A soap opera in that what is on display is both the good and bad in human beings with emphasis on the bad. I can only say that at least for the sake of the side you oppose the truth is coming out. It is coming out slowly by those on your side as examplified by the words of Miss Peine and those of your own:

    “But here’s the thing — those beliefs never seemed to be combined with a desire to provide easily accessible birth control or even an acceptance of a sexuality that didn’t result in procreation.” (They Hate Us for Our ‘Reproductive’ Freedom By Kathleen Peine July 19, 2011, La Progressive)

    In your words “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,” essentially the same thing is being said as that of Miss Peine.

    You also accurately point out that in 1965 with Griswold v. Connecticut, and in 1973 “when the Supreme Court formally ratified that rupture by making abortion legal in Roe v. Wade,” Americans were faced with radical feminism’s view of human sexuality that opposed the traditional inherited Christian understanding.

    To emphasize my last statement I bring up the words of the original feminists like:

    “Guilty? Yes. No matter what the motive, love of ease, or a desire to save from suffering the unborn innocent, the woman is awfully guilty who commits the deed. It will burden her conscience in life; it will burden her soul in death.” (Susan B. Anthony’s thoughts on abortion as published in “The Revolution”)

    “When we consider that women are treated as property, it is degrading to women to treat our children as property to be disposed of as we see fit.” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote in a 1873 letter to Julia Ward Howe)

    “Abortion is the ultimate exploitation of women.” (Alice Paul’s famous one line description of abortion)

    So prolifers do not disagree with this aspect of what you are saying and in fact thank your side for finally revealing your true colors. Where we do disagree is that this is about religious freedom as well as a woman’s health. In fact it’s about the health of all human beings including children not yet born and men who also come from a woman’s womb… who unfortunately are being aborted. You claim “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.” You intermix issues of African American voting, male and racial supremacy, the civil rights of women and economic change, all of which are not intrinsically bad, with that of contracepive and abortive procurement which are evils. What you imply in all this is that a woman’s “sexual independence” is a legitimate concern like these other issues. At the same time you fail to distinguish that a women’s “sexual freedom” is not the same as the issue of human health or religious expression. This ambiguity of your side leaves enough confusion in our cultural debate that your side can claim prolifers are not concerned about a woman’s health when they oppose contraception and abortion. Here you’ve just added a new twist separating heath and religious issues from freedom so you can claim neutrality from our moral concerns.

    The point here is that you are trying to reframe the issues of contraception and abortion in a way that distances you from the moral debate. This is not a new tactic as modern feminists have been doing this all along which you make evident when you point out the media’s asking the question “…is it about religious liberty or women’s health?” Freedom rightly understood is about doing what is good, NEVER what is evil. When it comes to health we don’t have a right to harm ourselves and can be imprisoned or put in a mental institution for attempting to do so. Likewise for anything else including reproduction. A woman does not have the right to take the life of her one year old child so why should she have a “right” to end her pregnancy, which effectively ends the life of her pre-one year old child? This question has always been in behind every radical feminist argument for contraception and abortion. It is an intimate part of the issue of “sexual and reproductive choices” or as yous say, a woman’s “control [over] her own fertility.” Therefore contraception and abortion are NOT “a central part of that health care.”

    In addition your anti-life sentiment has at its basis the separation of pleasure from generation of life in the act of sexual intercourse. You outwardly admit as much. It is both this simple and serious. If we as a society are to accept the way your side frames and reframes the issue, then the consequence is that we treat each other as things to be used for our own selfish pleasure AND some human life as not really deserving of protection (their Constitutional “right-to-life” that is). The side I subscribe to simply says the choice resides not after conception but prior to it when a man or woman can simply say “NO! I will not have sex with you unless we are both in a committed monogamous life-long relationship.” The prolife side therefore holds not a contraceptive mentality but rather is pre-conceptive …and note: the government need NOT be involved in this arrangement at all! It is instead your side that insist our government force everyone to comply with laws, insisting we pay for contraceptive drugs, abortions, embryonic stemcell experimentation, in-vitro services and other personal services. It is your side that remains silent on the issue of pornography, one of the greatest invasions of bedroom privacy ever, and your side that openly advocates homosexuality, and this because many of it’s members practice the “lifestyle.”

    Also note these latter two issues relate to the contraceptive issue because they both in their own way, whether that be inherent in the very act or by a willed decision, sterilize sexual intercourse. Thus for this reason as well as others all these actions, activities, “lifestyles” or “personal preferences” are immoral because they break apart and hinder one of the primary purposes for sexual union between human beings. Separating pleasure from the procreative meaning of sexual intercourse also severs the unitive meaning… that is it separates life from love. Now we then find women not only unhappy with their treatment by men but incapable of being able to hold onto relationships that can only be glued together with authentic love. Women who attempt to live your radical feminist rhetoric find themselves attracting men who are more than happy to manipulate them for their selfish pleasure. Why should we be surprised when we find women who advertise themselves as being open to these “new” sexual norms are attractive to men who care only about sexual pleasure and not taking care of the mother and child? Why shouldn’t disordered men be attracted to women who flaunt themselves openly and join in the game of manipulation? Women who have given into exibitionism that used to be unique to prostitutes should not be shocked when men become voyeurs in greater number… thereby further disrespecting the female gender.

    These sad characteristics of today’s male-female relationships have been encouraged by the proliferation of the contraceptive mentality that paints children as “unwanted” and seeks to free women from the natural consequence of their “gender role.” In other words when women insist on acting like men by sterilizing themselves with drugs and surgery they only succeed in bringing out the baser instincts in men in our society. So-called reproductive freedom has thereby ensnared women in a cultural mindset that has perpetuated their victimhood. It makes women slaves to the disordered passions of men who should otherwise be caring for them. Therefore the radical feminist cure has only been feeding the disease that the original feminists were concerned with. The answer to this delimia is to take the position of early feminists like Susan B. Anthony and condemn abortion, contraception and all other activities that interfere with and pervert normal human relations especially on the sexual level. The cure is for women to act fully feminine as distinguished from and opposed to men who should act completely masculine. These characteristics are written into our bodies and are as deep as our psychii making them spiritual components of our nature. That men and women are innately different in how they think, desire and behave is not an evil. This can be plainly known once one realizes it is their humanness that makes them equally deserving of all reasonable protections. Sameness resides within our nature as persons while it is our male or femaleness that makes us radically different; as such compliments to each other.

    My final point is that sexual pleasure is good in it’s proper context outside which it becomes an evil… and maybe one of the greatest evils any person can encounter.

  2. Clarabu77 says

    Thank you so much, Ms. Rosen for stating the situation so clearly. It has been close to nightmarish, to see the attempts at throwing women back in time! What confuses me is the failure of big business to see that when women are not worried about pregnancy, they are better able to focus on their employment and career development. Or are corporations also afraid to come out on the right side of the issues? 
    Adding insult to injury, the healthcare industry sees no problem with paying for Viagra…apparently it is more important for men to be fertile, or virile- than to have women who are in control of their lives and bodies.

  3. go99ers says

    This article is beautifully, thoughtfully, and intelligently written, and hits the nail right on the head. Thank you, Ruth Rosen. The battle today is still about the Republican Party and the right wingers wanting to control women’s bodies, and thinking that THEY should be making sexual and reproductive choices for us – the women. WRONG.

    Some women may want to stay at home and be Stepford wives, and if that is their choice, let them. But the majority of women want to make their own choices for themselves. Women have evolved tremendously since the 1970s, and we cannot go back to a time when women knew their place (ugh), Georgetown University law students were mostly men, and African Americans could not vote, 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 necessary.”

    We independent, educated, liberated women need to keep growing, learning, creating our own lives, and our own destinies. We cannot allow retarded, neanderthal, lizard-brain males to take away our choices. NO WAY.

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