Senators Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn show just how far stuck in the past both of them are. As the NYT Gail Collins and Media Matters report, they are holding up the National History Museum because...wait for it...women already have too many museums!
Sometimes there is not much more you can say about an issue than someone else has already said. That is the case with two pieces recently about efforts by Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) to obstruct passage of a bill to establish a National Women’s History Museum.
In a Friday op-ed, New York Times columnist Gail Collins highlighted a particularly inane example of GOP obstructionism. This time, the culprits are Senators Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Jim DeMint (R-SC), who have inexplicably put holds on a widely-supported bill that would allow a private group to purchase a piece of federal land on which to construct a women’s history museum — a bill that wouldn’t cost taxpayers anything. Collins writes:
You may be wondering why there is any problem getting Congressional support for a women’s history museum. Especially since the bill has already passed the House unanimously and come out of its Senate committee with unanimous approval. And since the bill, which is sponsored in the Senate by Susan Collins of Maine, has 23 co-sponsors from both parties. The Senate itself passed a different version of the plan unanimously a few years ago when the museum people were hoping to lease a government building rather than construct a new one.
The answer — and, people, how many times have you heard this story? — is that two senators, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, have put holds on the bill. A hold is one of those quaint Senate traditions that ensures that each individual member of the chamber will have the power to bring all activity to a screeching and permanent halt.
After explaining that Senator DeMint’s office hasn’t offered an explanation, Collins continues:
Coburn’s office said the senator was concerned that taxpayers might be asked to chip in later and also felt that the museum was unnecessary since “it duplicates more than 100 existing entities that have a similar mission.”
The office sent me a list of the entities in question. They include the Quilters Hall of Fame in Indiana, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Texas and the Hulda Klager Lilac Gardens in Washington. [emphasis added]
If you’re flabbergasted that someone could brush off a women’s history museum located in the national capital as redundant because there are museums to quilters and cowgirls somewhere else in the country — well, don’t be. This isn’t the first nor the most nonsensical example of Coburn and DeMint ridiculing or dismissing women and the issues pertinent to their well-being.
In 2009, both Coburn and DeMint were among 30 senators to vote against an amendment that would deny defense contracts to overseas contractors that prohibited their employees from seeking justice in a court system after a sexual assault. The amendment was spurred by a case in which a woman working for a contractor in Iraq was prevented from legal recourse after being raped by her co-workers, imprisoned in a shipping container without food or water, and threatened with the loss of her job if she sought medical treatment outside of Iraq.
If that weren’t bad enough, Coburn and DeMint both oppose a woman’s right to seek an abortion if she is raped. Moreover, Coburn so vehemently objects to a woman’s right to choose that he stated in a 2004 interview with the Associated Press (accessed via Nexis) that he “favor[s] the death penalty for abortionists.” He has also, confusingly, blamed “the rationalization for abortion and multiple sexual partners” on a “gay agenda.”
Despite all of the above, you might think that Coburn could at least support women’s health issues that don’t have anything to do with reproductive health. You’d be wrong. After the Senate passed an amendment improving coverage of women’s preventive services such as mammograms, Coburn took to the floor of the Senate to whine that the amendment was “political” and that men were being unfairly ignored.
The question is not why Senators Coburn and DeMint are blocking this no-brainer of a bill, but rather why we would ever expect a person who has scorned issues like mammograms and recourse for rape victims — issues so immediate and vital to the well-being of American women — to think that an institution dedicated to those women would be worthwhile.
Let’s just review: You’ve got the cowgirls and the quilters; you don’t deserve to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape; Coburn, a medical doctor (and OB-GYN!!!) who touts his med cred at every chance he gets, objected to coverage of mammograms as preventive care because it was unfair to men…..
We could go on, but what’s the point. These two are the poster boys for the misogyny of the far right (aka the Republican Party and the Mad-Hatter Party combined). And what I think we need is a poster museum, so we can relegate them to history.
Last week’s decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was remarkable not just for what it did say—that two provisions in Texas’s omnibus anti-abortion law were unconstitutional—but for what it didn’t say, and who didn’t say it.
In the lead-up to the decision, many court watchers were deeply concerned that Justice Anthony Kennedy would side with the conservative wing of the court, and that his word about targeted restrictions of abortion providers would signal the death knell of reproductive rights. Although Kennedy came down on the winning side, his notable silence on the “dignity” of those affected by the law still speaks volumes about his apparent feelings on women’s autonomy. That’s because Kennedy’s obsession with human dignity, and where along the fault line of that human dignity various rights fall, has become a hallmark of his jurisprudence—except where reproductive rights are concerned.
Meanwhile, in his majority opinion in June’s Fisher v. University of Texas, Kennedy upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas’ affirmative action program, noting that it remained a challenge to this country’s education system “to reconcile the pursuit of diversity with the constitutional promise of equal treatment and dignity.”
It is apparent that where Kennedy is concerned, dignity is the alpha and the omega. But when it came to one of the most important reproductive rights cases in decades, he was silent.
This is not entirely surprising: For Kennedy, the dignity granted to pregnant women, as evidenced by his opinions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v.Carhart, has been steeped in gender-normative claptrap about abortion being a unique choice that has grave consequences for women, abortion providers’ souls, and the dignity of the fetus. And in Whole Woman’s Health, when Kennedy was given another chance to demonstrate to us that he does recognize the dignity of women as women, he froze.
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He didn’t write the majority opinion. He didn’t write a concurring opinion. He permitted Justice Stephen Breyer to base the most important articulation of abortion rights in decades on data. There was not so much as a callback to Kennedy’s flowery articulation of dignity in Casey, where he wrote that “personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education” are matters “involving the most intimate and personal choices a person may make in a lifetime, choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” (While Casey was a plurality opinion, various Court historians have pointed out that Kennedy himself wrote the above-quoted language.)
Of course, that dignity outlined in Casey is grounded in gender paternalism: Abortion, Kennedy continued, “is an act fraught with consequences for others: for the woman who must live with the implications of her decision; for the persons who perform and assist in the procedures for the spouse, family, and society which must confront the knowledge that these procedures exist, procedures some deem nothing short of an act of violence against innocent human life; and, depending on one’s beliefs, for the life or potential life that is aborted.” Later, in Gonzales, Kennedy said that the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban “expresses respect for the dignity of human life,” with nothing about the dignity of the women affected by the ban.
And this time around, Kennedy’s silence in Whole Woman’s Health may have had to do with the facts of the case: Texas claimed that the provisions advanced public health and safety, and Whole Woman’s Health’s attorneys set about proving that claim to be false. Whole Woman’s Health was the sort of data-driven decision that did not strictly need excessive language about personal dignity and autonomy. As Breyer wrote, it was a simple matter of Texas advancing a reason for passing the restrictions without offering any proof: “We have found nothing in Texas’ record evidence that shows that, compared to prior law, the new law advanced Texas’ legitimate interest in protecting women’s health.”
In Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s two-page concurrence, she succinctly put it, “Many medical procedures, including childbirth, are far more dangerous to patients, yet are not subject to ambulatory-surgical-center or hospital admitting-privileges requirements.”
“Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H.B. 2 that ‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion,’ cannot survive judicial inspection,” she continued, hammering the point home.
So by silently signing on to the majority opinion, Kennedy may simply have been expressing that he wasn’t going to fall for the State of Texas’ efforts to undermine Casey’s undue burden standard through a mixture of half-truths about advancing public health and weak evidence supporting that claim.
Still, Kennedy had a perfect opportunity to complete the circle on his dignity jurisprudence and take it to its logical conclusion: that women, like everyone else, are individuals worthy of their own autonomy and rights. But he didn’t—whether due to his Catholic faith, a deep aversion to abortion in general, or because, as David S. Cohen aptly put it, “[i]n Justice Kennedy’s gendered world, a woman needs … state protection because a true mother—an ideal mother—would not kill her child.”
As I wrote last year in the wake of Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell, “according to [Kennedy’s] perverse simulacrum of dignity, abortion rights usurp the dignity of motherhood (which is the only dignity that matters when it comes to women) insofar as it prevents women from fulfilling their rightful roles as mothers and caregivers. Women have an innate need to nurture, so the argument goes, and abortion undermines that right.”
This version of dignity fits neatly into Kennedy’s “gendered world.” But falls short when compared to jurists internationally, who have pointed out that dignity plays a central role in reproductive rights jurisprudence.
In Casey itself, for example, retired Justice John Paul Stevens—who, perhaps not coincidentally, attended the announcement of the Whole Woman’s Health decision at the Supreme Court—wrote that whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is a “matter of conscience,” and that “[t]he authority to make such traumatic and yet empowering decisions is an element of basic human dignity.”
And in a 1988 landmark decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, Justice Bertha Wilson indicated in her concurring opinion that “respect for human dignity” was key to the discussion of access to abortion because “the right to make fundamental personal decision without interference from the state” was central to human dignity and any reading of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 1982, which is essentially Canada’s Bill of Rights.
The case was R. v. Morgentaler, in which the Supreme Court of Canada found that a provision in the criminal code that required abortions to be performed only at an accredited hospital with the proper certification of approval from the hospital’s therapeutic abortion committee violated the Canadian Constitution. (Therapeutic abortion committees were almost always comprised of men who would decide whether an abortion fit within the exception to the criminal offense of performing an abortion.)
Certainly, abortion rights are still severely restricted in some of the above-mentioned countries, and elsewhere throughout the world. Nevertheless, there is strong national and international precedent for locating abortion rights in the square of human dignity.
And where else would they be located? If dignity is all about permitting people to make decisions of fundamental personal importance, and it turns out, as it did with Texas, that politicians have thrown “women’s health and safety” smoke pellets to obscure the true purpose of laws like HB 2—to ban abortion entirely—where’s the dignity in that?
Perhaps I’m being too grumpy. Perhaps I should just take the win—and it is an important win that will shape abortion rights for a generation—and shut my trap. But I want more from Kennedy. I want him to demonstrate that he’s not a hopelessly patriarchal figure who has icky feelings when it comes to abortion. I want him to recognize that some women have abortions and it’s not the worst decision they’ve ever made or the worst thing that ever happened to him. I want him to recognize that women are people who deserve dignity irrespective of their choices regarding whether and when to become a mother. And, ultimately, I want him to write about a woman’s right to choose using the same flowery language that he uses to discuss LGBTQ rights and the dignity of LGBTQ people. He could have done so here.
Forcing the closure of clinics based on empty promises of advancing public health is an affront to the basic dignity of women. Not only do such lies—and they are lies, as evidenced by the myriad anti-choice Texan politicians who have come right out and said that passing HB 2 was about closing clinics and making abortion inaccessible—operate to deprive women of the dignity to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term, they also presume that the American public is too stupid to truly grasp what’s going on.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Monday discussed their stances on abortion regulations during a town hall event hosted by Fox News.
Host Bret Baier, during a special edition of Fox News’ Special Report, spoke with Sanders and Clinton in Detroit ahead of Michigan’s primary vote. Baier asked Clinton: “Do you think a child should have any legal rights or protections before it’s born?”
“Right now the Supreme Court is considering a decision that would shut down a lot of the options for women in Texas, and there have been other legislatures that have taken similar steps to try to restrict a woman’s right to obtain an abortion,” Clinton said.
“Under Roe v. Wade, which is rooted in the Constitution, women have this right to make this highly personal decision with their family in accordance with their faith, with their doctor. It’s not much of a right if it is totally limited and constrained,” she said. “So I think we have to continue to stand up for a woman’s right to make these decisions, and to defend Planned Parenthood, which does an enormous amount of good work across our country.”
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Clinton, when asked by Baier if there were any exceptions to her position, noted that she has been “on record in favor of a late pregnancy regulation that would have exceptions for the life and health of the mother.” Clinton noted that she opposes Congressional Republicans’ efforts to pass a 20-week abortion ban without exceptions such as the “complex, difficult medical situation[s]” that don’t occur until that point in a pregnancy.
Clinton has voiced support for some restrictions on abortion care, including so-called partial birth abortion bans, as long as they include exceptions.
Clinton responded to Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) false assertion during a February debate that Clinton thought “all abortion should be legal, even on the due date of that unborn child,” saying “reasonable kinds of restrictions can be imposed [on abortion] as long as the life and health of the mother are taken into account and that’s what the law is today.”
Speaking with Sanders, Baier asked if the senator could “name a single circumstance at any point in a pregnancy at which point you would be OK with abortion being illegal.”
“It’s not a question of me being OK,” said Sanders, who pledged last year to fight the anti-choice “counter-revolution” unfolding in Republican-held state legislatures. “I know not everybody here will agree with me. I happen to believe that it is wrong for the government to be telling a woman what to do with her own body.”
Baier circled back, pushing Sanders to answer whether he was “saying no” to limits on abortion access “after five months” with exceptions such as life endangerment. “I am very strongly pro-choice,” Sanders said. “That is a decision to be made by the woman, her physician, and her family. That’s my view.”
Baier’s question about abortion came one day after CNN’s Democratic debate in Flint became the party’s seventh debate that failed to ask the candidates about their stances on the issue. January’s Iowa Brown and Black Presidential Forum hosted by news outlet Fusion, however, challenged the Democratic candidates to address abortion rights and reproductive health.