Dispatches from the War on Women

The War on Women. I spent a day asking those around me to define this phrase. The initial reactions were similar—a shrug, a look of thoughtfulness, an attempt to deflect so as not to give a “wrong answer.” Many of the subsequent answers, though, were quite different. Taken together, they offered an insight into a wide range of issues that exist in middle-to-upper-class America. From persistent income inequality, to matters of language (the use of “female” instead of “woman,” for example), to recent statistics showing that 34% of Princeton undergraduate women responding to a survey have experienced nonconsensual sexual contact in the past year, time and time again these issues were framed as personal. By personal, I mean only that, when talking about particularly difficult topics (for example, those pertaining to oppression and privilege), many people are only able to do so with reference to issues that relate most closely to them or to people they know. 

What surprised me, though, was that no one mentioned the way the media has deployed the term “War on Women” since July. That is, no one mentioned Congress’ continued efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, even as many of them and many of their peers decided to attend rallies or change their Facebook profile pictures in support of the embattled organization in the last week of September. This even more troublesome, considering that they certainly are not apathetic or untouched by its services. The scope of Planned Parenthood’s care encompasses offers pregnancy tests, emergency contraception, female sterilization, vasectomies, reversible contraception, prenatal care, pap smears, breast exams, STI screenings and treatment, and abortions. As of a 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 41% of the services provided are STI screenings and treatment, 34% are related to birth control, and only 3% are abortions. It is crucial to keep these statistics in mind when examining the conversations saturating the media. The majority of the current controversy lies within that very small 3%, in the ethics and morality of abortion and of the use of fetal tissue to further scientific research. 

I am not here to navigate the waters of what constitutes a life, nor do I wish to examine the practice of utilizing fetal tissue, which has been around since the 1930s and heavily regulated since the 1990s. Instead, I want to look at the media’s proclamation of a “War on Women,” and I want to do so through a more specific lens. Undoubtedly, the House of Representatives’ treatment of Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards during the last week of September was hostile enough to merit such hyperbolic language and the label of “war.” It was inappropriate, unbelievable, and many other words that begin with the prefixes “in-” and “un-.” As Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s questions shifted in tone from those related to the organization to those attacking its president, “the entire time I’ve been in Congress [twenty-two years], I’ve never seen a witness beaten up and questioned about their salary. […] I find it totally inappropriate and discriminatory.” This detail sheds light on the continued disparity in the treatment of women in power compared to men.

However, the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood primarily constitute a War on Low-Income Women. This fact has been referenced in the media, but it has nevertheless been lost in the general discourse. It is easier for media outlets, particularly those with near-constant pressure to churn out news, to create binary situations: you’re either pro-life or pro-choice, for or against women, an advocate of child sacrifice or a civilized human being, depending on the slant of the news outlet. As a strategy, this polarization makes it easier to mobilize a mass of people, and it functions particularly well in the current political climate, which itself helps to perpetuate political, social, and economic inequities. But, in doing so, those who purport to be champions of women’s rights, in particular of reproductive rights, shift the current conversation away from that which it should rightly be about; namely, the continued disenfranchisement of oppressed groups for political gains.

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The clearest demonstration of the poisonous politics of the recent abortion debate can be seen in Republicans’ opposition to the Affordable Care Act, not the videos upon which the entire movement to defund Planned Parenthood was based. While this maybe the seed from which the entire matter has sprouted, there is a more complicated interplay of issues going on that cannot be lumped together into generality. And in any case, independent groups proved that these videos were doctored to portray employees as illegally selling fetal tissue, and acting callously toward what is framed as the slaughter of innocents. Planned Parenthood does receive $500 million from the federal government, but it is prohibited from using these funds to provide abortion, and so the remainder of the arguments of those in favor of defunding the organization are moot. This is particularly true, given the fact that recent investigations conducted in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Dakota, Indiana, and Massachusetts, have found Planned Parenthood to be fully in line with regulations pertaining to fetal tissue use and allocation of federal funds; shortly thereafter, other states, including Iowa, Delaware, Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Colorado, declined to conduct inquiries of their own.

Here is where the Affordable Care Act becomes important. Known popularly, and often pejoratively, as “Obamacare,” the 2010 law enacted several major changes to the healthcare system. Obamacare in its initial form expanded access to Medicaid for many low-income Americans, created incentives for small companies to provide health insurance to their employees, and created a state-based “market” system in which individuals could purchase insurance. In 2012, a Supreme Court decision handed down largely preserved the Affordable Care Act, but it limited the scope of Medicaid expansion by allowing the states to decide whether or not to go through with it. Ripple effects were felt in various cross-sections of America following the ruling, but perhaps the most important effect when framing the conversation in terms of the present is how the decision relates low-income women. In 2013, 53% of uninsured women had incomes at or below 138% of the federal poverty line. Twelve of the states that elected not to expand Medicaid under Obamacare had higher-than-average (greater than 20%) rates of uninsured women. It is important to scrutinize these facts alongside the demographics Planned Parenthood serves. From 2010 to 2013, according to the GAO Report, approximately 80% of the individuals who received care from Planned Parenthood had incomes at or below 150% of federal poverty levels. Specifically, half of women who received the crucial care that Planned Parenthood offers were able to do so only because of Medicaid. The current conversation about abortion must focus on this. 

The statements of those who opposed the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling—primarily Republicans should be considered alongside what would have happened had the Court decided differently. According to Washington Post journalist Karen Tumulty, they would have faced “the challenge of having to come up with a solution for the 6.4 million Americans – most of them in conservative states – who might have found their health insurance unaffordable […] And as it moves into a presidential election season, the party can continue to galvanize the conservative base by railing against both the law and the high court.”

At the same time, however, presidential hopefuls are being pressed for alternatives to Obamacare. Many have responded by making comments similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012: “Obamacare was bad policy yesterday; it’s bad policy today. Obamacare was bad law yesterday; it’s bad law today.” Lambasting it as bad policy and bad law is not an argument: it is easy rhetoric. The same is true about the current discourse about Planned Parenthood. Referring to employees as “minions” and denouncing their work as “barbarism,” as “The Princeton Tory” did recently says nothing of substance. 

Defunding Planned Parenthood would disenfranchise oppressed and marginalized groups without distinguishing along party lines. Because of this, we, as Americans, have a collective responsibility to work to empower us all, no matter what combination of privileged and oppressed identities we hold as individuals. The media deemed Congress’ efforts to be a War on Women, and this may make some people feel distanced from efforts at collective empowerment. However, the media is a reflection on and an extension of our present society. And language, particularly in an age of instantly-accessible language, holds a unique power. We must be precise and cognizant of intersectionality. For this is not just a War on Women (in this sense, I am glad that none of those individuals I asked linked the War on Women to Planned Parenthood), and we must not allow it to be framed merely as that. It is more than that; it is a war on equality and justice. It is an outgrowth of a historical system of disenfranchisement and oppression that we must oppose.

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