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Sarah Emily Duff

Sarah Emily Duff

By Sarah Emily Duff

In many ways, 2012 has not begun well for women. Interviewed about his client’s alleged involvement in a prostitution ring, Dominique Strauss Kahn’s lawyer commented recently on French radio: ‘I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman.’ Then PETA decided that joking about domestic violence was an excellent way of selling veganism. In the US, Planned Parenthood suffered another blow to its funding. And the Republican primaries seem to suggest that a lot of American politicians really don’t like women.

Or that that they really don’t like women who are educated; who work; who contribute to the country’s economy; and who decide when they will fall pregnant and how many children they will have. Rick Santorum, the most bonkers candidate out of a group which includes a man who wants to solve America’s problems by going to the moon, has blamed ‘radical feminists’ for undermining American society by encouraging women to work. When asked to clarify what he meant by ‘radical feminists’ he answered:

It comes from an elite culture, dictated, again, from academia, dictated, again, from the Hollywood culture and the news media, that says, ‘The only thing that’s affirming, the only thing that really counts is what you do at work.’

As an academic, I am proud to be part of this ‘elite’, destabilising culture.

Not content with attempting to reduce women’s access to abortion, Republican candidates have now taken issue with contraception. Earlier this month, the issue crystallised around a proposed amendment to compel all health insurance plans provided by employers to offer women birth control free of charge. Under the banner of religious freedom, Republican candidates and Roman Catholic bishops argued that this was an infringement of religious freedom.

We now know that Obama’s new regulation will allow Catholic institutions not to include birth control in their insurance packages – but insurers will, nonetheless, still have to contact women directly about free contraception. This makes medical aid companies happy because contraception is cheaper than funding abortions and childbirth; women have free access to birth control; and Catholic employers can wash their hands of the issue.

The Republican candidates have been wrong-footed by a cleverer Obama. This is wonderful, but the issue remains: why is it that the Republicans believe that banning or restricting access to contraception will win them the Presidency? After all, 99% of all American women use some form of contraception – and this includes 98% of all Catholic women too. Indeed, some polls suggest that support for the Republicans among women has dropped significantly. (And I should bloody well hope so.)

What bugs them so much about women controlling their ability to choose when to fall pregnant? Santorum has said that contraception is ‘a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.’ Now are things ‘supposed to be’, Rick?

Women have always used contraception in some form or another. Until relatively recently, admitting to using contraceptives was taboo. Early birth control advocates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries frequently faced arrest for promoting ‘immorality’ by providing women with free contraception. But even so, we know that for hundreds of years, people have used condoms, douches, spermicides of varying efficacy, and other methods of birth control. Even if the Republicans were to ban contraception in the US, it’s unlikely that women would stop using contraceptives.

So Rick’s mythical contraceptive-free past doesn’t exist. His argument isn’t particularly new either. During the 1960s, commentators argued that the Pill – surely the greatest invention of the twentieth century – was responsible for the decade’s sexual revolution. While it’s true that the minority of young people who were part of the American and European counterculture did certainly have more extra-marital sex because of the Pill, it was much the case as that the Pill allowed more women to choose and to control when they would have their children. This was better for women’s health and for families’ finances, and also allowed women to enter the workforce.

What happened during the fifties and sixties was a global re-evaluation of women’s reproductive rights, the nature and significance of the family, and the relationship between men and women. In Britain, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, and greater freedom to divorce came as a result of this shift in thinking – not because of the Pill. Even the Catholic Church came close to endorsing contraception in 1966 when a commission recommended to that the faithful be allowed to use birth control. But Paul VI decided not to change the Church’s position, on the grounds that a shift in position would undermine its claim to infallibility.

(Yes. Slightly more than one billion people are not allowed to use contraception because the Catholic Church refuses to admit that it’s wrong.)

Santorum’s anxiety about contraception is about far more than the Pill or sex as it’s ‘supposed’ to be: it’s about a terror of women who are free. Contraception frees women from their biology: it allows them to choose when and how (and if) they will be mothers.

But should we care about what Santorum has to say? Well, he represents a party which has passed a law in Virginia which will make it compulsory for women seeking abortions to have an ultrasound which would force them to see their foetus and hear its heartbeat. This ultrasound would be carried out by vaginal probe.

He also represents a party which under the Bush administration, cut funding to family planning organisations working in the developing world. Marie Stopes, for instance, was no longer able to distribute contraception in some of the poorest parts of Africa because the US didn’t want to be seen to endorsing an organisation which helps women to have abortions.

What happens in the US has an effect on all of us. If anything, this debate in the US demonstrates how fragile the victories of the 60s and 70s are. We abandon feminism at our peril.

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2 thoughts on “Lie back and think of Santorum

  1. It scares me that this is happening in a supposedly first-world, progressive nation. That these issues which should be long-buried have been brought up frightens me. Lastly, as someone who was hoping to go to America in a few months, it terrifies me that I’ll have to watch my back because I am a feminist. This notion that it’s a negative thing is… well, I’m at a loss for words here.

    Like

  2. Pingback: What’s New at UVenus? 17 March 2012 « University of Venus

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