Reproductive Freedom: The Body Speaks

Frances Kissling

The freedom to reproduce or not, along with the freedom to express ourselves sexually, is the most intimate of body rights and human rights. Yet few dare to talk of reproductive freedom.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a pre-election series
featuring leading voices in sexual and reproductive health advocacy,
showing how shared American values underpin their support for sexual
and reproductive health, rights, and justice. Read them all here.

There are certain words that reverberate in our soul. While
they mean different things in different contexts, locations and times, they
serve as compass points. Some call them virtues, some values; these words
represent our deepest aspirations. Freedom, justice, compassion, love,
generosity – you add the one that speaks to you. Often we are attracted to the
one we most lack. And for women, that lack is often freedom: the freedom to
allow their bodies to speak. 

The oft quoted sentiment of Margaret Sanger cries out: "No
woman can call herself free who does not own and control her own body. No woman can
call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not
be a mother." We love the title "Our Bodies Ourselves," for in fact the only
thing we really own is our body.  I had
never been more moved or better understood why I have committed my life to
reproductive freedom than when I heard Bernice Johnson Reagon sing the freedom
song, Oh Freedom – "and before I’ll be a
slave I’ll be buried in my grave" at a reproductive health funder’s briefing.

And yet, we rarely frame reproduction in terms of this most
quintessential American value vaunted by both liberals and conservatives. Only
radical feminists unafraid of being called selfish dare to talk of reproductive
freedom or more boldly sexual freedom. We speak of reproductive choice,
reproductive health or reproductive justice.

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But freedom is the word that speaks most loudly to me.
Freedom is the ability peacefully to live a life of one’s choosing. I continue
to struggle to be the subject of my life. Free, as Marlo Thomas put it, to be
me; free to find out who I am. In that search I have only my body – and the
bodies of all the others I encounter – to help me learn who I am. My body
speaks  to you; it tells you who I am. In
a recent address on human rights, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams
got it.* He said "The ultimate form of slavery would be a situation in which
your body was made to carry the meanings or messages of another subject and
never permitted to say in words or gestures what was instinctive for itself as
the embodiment of a sense-making consciousness." He continues: "The irreducible
core of human rights is the liberty to make sense as a bodily subject."

Human rights, human freedom exist in the body. The freedom
to speak is a body right, the freedom not to be tortured or enslaved is a body
right, freedom from hunger is a body right and the freedom to reproduce or not,
along with the freedom to express ourselves sexually, is the most intimate of
body rights and human rights. For women it sends a central message and carries
to the world the meaning of who we are.

So let’s look at what has been the hardest reproductive
freedom to defend. The well educated, financially well off woman who becomes
pregnant as the result of consensual mature sex and strongly believes that it
is not part of who she is, of her essential identity, to be pregnant, to give
birth to child or be a mother. Is she, as those who fear autonomous women say,
selfish? Or is she simply and correctly insistent about the message her body
will send and the preservation of her bodily integrity?  I remember my cold anger during conversations
with Jim Wallis who when asked about how he saw women who had abortions could
only imagine women as victims, victims of poverty, rape, marginality and who
was stunned and silent when told that there are indeed many women for whom the
decision to abort is a mature, healthy expression of their identity and nature
and that he needed to respect those women and their decisions.

Much work needs to be done to develop the way in which we
think about intimacy, the body, and bodily integrity. This work is in process
with feminist ethicists, theologians and scholars making serious contributions.
In the reproductive freedom movement, some are brave enough to think and talk
about pleasure, a good that is separate
and distinct from procreation.  It is
perhaps more imperative to work on the meaning of being pregnant, of gestating
and of giving birth. The philosopher Margaret Little has written about the way
in which gestation is depicted. It is as if the woman as person, as voice did
not exist. A passive carriage of time which belongs not to the woman but to
nature.  Little asks:  "What is at stake in asking a woman to
continue a pregnancy?" The physical risks we ask women to take are well known
and especially urgent in the developing world where half a million women a year
die of pregnancy related conditions. In these cases we have asked women to give
up their very right to life.

But for every woman, the act of pregnancy is extraordinarily
intimate and perhaps not in a positive way. We ask a woman, as Little says "to
allow another living creature to live on and off [her] body for nine months."
And I would add to live after birth with the reality of being a mother, whether
she wanted to or not and whether she kept or gave the child away. These are
deep intrusions on one’s freedom and identity. It is imperative to enable
others to understand that this is precisely the form of slavery Rowan Williams
described as "a situation in which your body was made to carry the meanings or
messages of another subject." In this case the other subject is someone who
believes that the essential message of a woman’s body is the acceptance of a
pregnancy at all costs.

Freedom is allowing each woman’s body to speak. It is
demanding that other bodies listen to what she is saying. Each of us who has
committed ourselves to sexual and reproductive freedom has committed ourselves
to that goal. Let us not be timid in making our case.

 

 

*I do not want
to misrepresent Archbishop Williams’ views. The most interesting part of his
address is the fact that he so brilliantly described the embodiment of human
rights and its violations while insisting that it had no applicability to
pregnancy. It is a clear indicator of how much work needs to be done.

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Changes Position on Federal Funding for Abortion Care

Ally Boguhn

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back the Hyde Amendment's ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), the Democratic Party’s vice presidential candidate, has promised to stand with nominee Hillary Clinton in opposing the Hyde Amendment, a ban on federal funding for abortion care.

Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, told CNN’s State of the Union Sunday that Kaine “has said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment,” according to the network’s transcript.

“Voters can be 100 percent confident that Tim Kaine is going to fight to protect a woman’s right to choose,” Mook said.

The commitment to opposing Hyde was “made privately,” Clinton spokesperson Jesse Ferguson later clarified to CNN’s Edward Mejia Davis.

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Kaine’s stated support for ending the federal ban on abortion funding is a reversal on the issue for the Virginia senator. Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard  that he had not “been informed” that this year’s Democratic Party platform included a call for repealing the Hyde Amendment. He said he has “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Repealing the Hyde Amendment has been an issue for Democrats on the campaign trail this election cycle. Speaking at a campaign rally in New Hampshire in January, Clinton denounced Hyde, noting that it made it “harder for low-income women to exercise their full rights.”

Clinton called the federal ban on abortion funding “hard to justify” when asked about it later that month at the Brown and Black Presidential Forum, adding that “the full range of reproductive health rights that women should have includes access to safe and legal abortion.”

Clinton’s campaign told Rewire during her 2008 run for president that she “does not support the Hyde amendment.”

The Democratic Party on Monday codified its commitment to opposing Hyde, as well as the Helms Amendment’s ban on foreign assistance funds being used for abortion care. 

The Obama administration, however, has not signaled support for rolling back Hyde’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

When asked about whether the president supported the repeal of Hyde during the White House press briefing Tuesday, Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said he did not “believe we have changed our position on the Hyde Amendment.”

When pushed by a reporter to address if the administration is “not necessarily on board” with the Democratic platform’s call to repeal Hyde, Schultz said that the administration has “a longstanding view on this and I don’t have any changes in our position to announce today.”