Commentary Human Rights

The Alabamification of America, Take Two: An Agenda of Which Even the Bishops Should be Ashamed

Pamela Sumners

The right wants to allow a boss or a corporation to claim “religious” or “conscience” reasons to roll back equal rights. As a native Alabamian, I am hearing some thundering hooves over some bridges at Selma. Religion and “conscience” and employers' and property owners’ rights were justifications for discriminating against black people in this country from the founding of the republic until the Civil Rights Act was passed. Now they are coming for you.

You ought to know you’re in a bad spot when you begin an opinion piece with: “You really can’t make this stuff up.” This is not the first time I have written that sentence opening an opinion piece in Missouri.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass what NARAL has called the “Let her die” bill—a bill that would allow any doctor or nurse to refuse to participate in an abortion that is necessary to save the woman’s life in an emergency. This—in the name of “conscience.” Fortunately, the United States Senate has so far refused to go along.

But Missouri’s own Republican Senator Roy Blunt has tacked an amendment to a transportation bill (of all things) that would undo the Obama Administration’s no co-pay birth-control ruling, following the furor generated by right-wing media, some conservative archbishops, and Tea Partiers about extending this simple preventive care. In fact, Roy Blunt has vowed to work to get the entire new health reform law scrapped by the Senate.

Meanwhile, back at the Show-Me State ranch, five separate bills have been introduced to nullify the federal health care reform law. Four other bills attempt to protect the “conscience” rights of hospital corporations–whether they are religiously-affiliated or not, whether they are public or private, nonprofit or for-profit–to refuse to provide contraception, abortion, or in-vitro fertilization. And that’s not all. These bills are written so broadly that they would allow insurers, networks of insurers, and HMOs to invoke their “consciences” as reasons to refuse treatment or insurance coverage for basic reproductive health care for women.

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Enough is enough. Missouri already outlaws public funding for abortion. Missouri already has the fourth most comprehensive restrictions on abortion among all 50 states. Missouri state medical schools are forbidden from teaching abortion procedures to med students. Missouri has a broken system for minors who need a judge’s permission to get an abortion because of their inability to involve their parents. The Missouri General Assembly has received an “F” grade from NARAL Pro-Choice America for the past 21 years—the only state in the union to hold that distinction.

Now state senator John Lamping, an alleged “moderate,” had his way 5-2 in a Missouri Senate committee on Valentine’s Day. According to Lamping’s bill, corporations are people—with consciences. I wish this were true as to HMOs and insurers, but it’s just not.

What Lamping would allow is a real mind-bender: You will no longer have to do your job if you’ve got a little moral quibble with a customer or patient who came to a place of public accommodation where you work (like coming to a pharmacy and finding the pharmacist who abhors birth control or anti-depressants—who should just find a different job that fits with his scruples, by the way).

What Lamping also would allow: it doesn’t matter what a woman, her sexual partner, or her husband thinks about birth control. A hospital employee’s boss, an HMO, an insurer, can make her decisions about birth control or abortion for her—based on the boss’s or corporation’s “conscience.” A woman can die, for all Mr. Lamping cares, for all the Senate Committee cares—because there is no exception for a medical emergency to save a woman’s life. It doesn’t matter if she had a wanted pregnancy that went tragically wrong and might kill her. It’s so comforting that cool-thinking characters like the moderate John Lamping or an HMO, CEO, COO, or CFO can acronym-validate its own “moral” choices, isn’t it? Far better that a dispassionate corporate entity make our moral choices for us than a messy woman or her messy family.

Isn’t it adorable that a boss or a corporation can claim “religious” or “conscience” reasons to roll back equal rights? As a native Alabamian, I am hearing some thundering hooves over some bridges at Selma. Can you hear them, too? Don’t even try to tell me that religion and “conscience” and employers’ and property owners’ rights were not justifications for discriminating against black people in this country from the founding of the republic until the Civil Rights Act was passed.

You watch—you watch these Tea Partiers, and their alleged “moderate” election-year turnout tools, like Mr. Lamping. You think all civil rights are not on their radar? You think Rand Paul, running off at the mouth about a restaurant owner’s “free market” right to discriminate against anyone whose money isn’t good enough for him, was an isolated Kentucky accident? They are here, and they are coming for: vagina-Americans, black and brown people hanging out without papers, black and brown people who’ve lived here for 80 years without proper papers while (heavens!) voting, people who aren’t rich enough, white enough, or whatever enough. This is an agenda cloaked in conscience, and even if 20 bishops swear to it, they should be ashamed.

People like Roy Blunt or John Lamping just don’t want to say what “get your grimy federal hands off all minority or powerless or vagina-endowed or melanin-toned Amarikkun rights” means. I know. I know the Alabamification of America, circa 1960s, when I see it. I hope you’re watching, too.

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