The New Administration: Not Quite Ready to Stand Up for Women

Frances Kissling

The cultural discourse of those who do not recognize women's sexual and reproductive lives as a matter of human rights allows President Obama to disregard our needs.

"It is time that we end the
politicization of this issue.  In the coming weeks, my Administration
will initiate a fresh conversation on family planning, working to find
areas of common ground to best meet the needs of women and families
at home and around the world. 

"I have directed my staff to
reach out to those on all sides of this issue to achieve the goal of
reducing unintended pregnancies

— Barack Obama Statement
on rescinding the Global Gag Rule January 23, 2009 

There is joy tonight in the new and
improved pro-life movement. This is the movement that says it has given
up for the time being on making abortion illegal and instead wants to
reduce the number of abortions without supporting contraception. These
are the so-called third way-ers and progressive religious pro-lifers
who want women who are already pregnant to continue their pregnancies
and support bills that offer rhetorical cover for that goal, but very
little money.  While they talk about prevention, they really don’t
like contraception. After all, women who use contraception are
having sex, and the religious types are not so progressive that they’ve
given up on the idea that sex is a sin unless it takes place in marriage.
If they support contraception for everyone, someone might conclude that
they understand sex as a legitimate expression of love outside of marriage,
as well as within it, and pleasure itself might be seen as holy. This
is not their culture and they will fight a quiet war to be sure government
is with them.

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And so, when President Obama asks Congress to remove some modest provision for expanding access to
family planning from the economic stimulus package he presented to Congress,
he sends the message that he too only talks the prevention game, but
will not walk the walk; he too sees women’s capacity to get pregnant
as not a legitimate policy issue. He too doesn’t want to deal with
the messy issue of sex and pregnancy.

"It is time that we end the politicization
of this issue," Obama says. Yet as soon as the Republicans used the family
planning provision as a political wedge, he played right into it — Just take it
out of the package, he directed Congress. Every value that undergirds the sexual and reproductive
health, justice and rights movements was ignored by the President.

insensitivity to women is hard to swallow when compared to the purported
sensitivity he extends to the hard line anti-abortion movement — sensitivity that influenced the President’s decision not to rescind the global gag rule on January
22 but to do so quietly a day later, without ceremony or celebration with the
leaders of the international and domestic movements that represent the
thousands of women who were denied information and services as a result
of the gag rule.

We were promised that science and evidence would determine policy. Well, the evidence is in
that women’s economic well being is tied to their ability to decide
when and whether to have children. Evidence shows that the cost to low
income and unemployed women of unintended pregnancy is increased poverty
and joblessness. But politics were more important than facts.

We were promised that preventing unintended
pregnancy would be high on the President’s agenda. And those of us
who support that approach do so not because abortion is bad, but because
women want to prevent unintended pregnancy and, for the most part, lack
of education and resources, not irresponsible sex, are the reason they
fail. The President’s January 23 promise of a "fresh conversation
on family planning" turned out to be the stale crumbs of political
compromise that consistently sweep women’s needs under the policy

We were promised that reproductive
health would be framed as a social justice issue, integrated into the
long neglected list of what women need to be full and productive members
of the community — jobs, health care, paid family and medical leave.  But at the very first opportunity to link women’s reproductive health
to social and economic justice — the economic stimulus package — the President denied the link when he picked up the phone and told
Henry Waxman to take out the family planning provision. 

The President has asked us to end the
culture wars. I say forget it. Bring back the culture war. For in fact
what the President and his progressive pro-life buddies has asked us
to do is stop talking about the values that are the foundation of our
support for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. He
asks us to deal only with "practical solutions" which he then refuses
to implement.

The discussion of sexuality and reproduction
is a profoundly cultural issue; its long term resolution and the transformation
of US social policy into one that is respectful of the values of women’s
rights, and autonomy and that recognizes that sexual and reproductive
freedom is a value requires a cultural discourse. Nothing proves that
more than the crass political decision President Obama made yesterday to
eliminate family planning access from the economic stimulus package.
And it is the cultural discourse of those who do not recognize women’s
sexual and reproductive lives as a matter of human rights that allows
a President to disregard our needs. 

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