There are rare episodes when legislative debate in America is both personal and profoundly political at the same time. One happened last month in Michigan, where a maneuver smacking of chauvinism, repression, and hypocrisy showcased the right-wing war on women, and the stakes of the Nov. 6 election.
Insistence by Michigan's Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger that his fellow state representatives Barb Byrum and Lisa Brown, both Democrats, not speak on the House floor was retaliation for the women's protest against an extreme antiabortion bill they had the audacity to call out as an invasion of privacy and violation of their own bodily integrity. This attempted smack-down from Republicans pushing intrusive, Big Brother policies while prone to boasting their small-government beliefs has created a teachable moment about gender, authority, and fair representation. It should rally men to reverse the onslaught against healthcare access and human rights just as much as it is activating women.
Michigan's proposal mimics a host of similar bills requiring ultrasounds, coercive counseling, and other paternalistic humiliations before women can end an unwanted pregnancy. Such bills were debated in 18 legislatures this year and have become law in eight states, including Texas and Virginia, where Republican strong-arming gained the force of state policy when the new statute took effect July 1.
After an investigation by pro-transparency researchers at the Sunlight Foundation showed that Republican lawmakers across the country were cutting and pasting from a common source text, an anti-abortion group took credit for circulating the so-called model legislation. Creating cue cards for right-wing lawmakers has become a cottage industry among conservatives now that ALEC, the purveyor of choice for anti-choice, anti-union, and anti-gay policies, has egg on its face from exposés tying the group to Florida's shoot-first-ask-later law implicated in the Trayvon Martin killing and Arizona's show-me-your-papers law, most of which was rejected by the Supreme Court in June.
Brown and Byrum's refusal to take the legislation or their gag order lying down has ignited nationwide resistance to the right-wing subversion of women's constitutional rights. The attack is rooted in an ages-old argument from the right about control of women's bodies and reproductive decision-making. But it has taken on new venom with the reality of federal health care reform, which is lessening or lifting for millions of American women what had felt like a life sentence of anxiety over denial or unaffordable care. It is nothing less than a landmark in women's liberation.
The law mandates free or low-cost preventive care, requires private insurance to cover FDA-approved contraceptives, and bans denials or terminations for pre-existing conditions along with its promise of insurance coverage. These provisions combine to lower fear over illness and unwanted pregnancy. In a society where responsibility for care of virtually every kind remains women's work, underpaid if paid at all, the law also will reduce the prevalence of untreated conditions among close loved ones and the anguish and expense of their management and, by making care more accessible, eases the compulsory duty of care for family members that often falls on women and girls, which can deter education and workforce advancement. It is fitting that the Affordable Care Act marked a victory before the Supreme Court just a week after the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the section of education law requiring funding equity for girls and women in K-12 schools and colleges.
It is also fitting that the first election since the death of intellectual powerhouse Adrienne Rich, who passed away in March, should focus on women's voice and women's autonomy. Feminists of an earlier era, Rich included, spoke of the instant when anger at inequity sparked political insight and activation by women as a "click." Today that click is being repeated in Michigan, Washington, D.C., and other capitals. It's the sound of women unhooking from metal posts the cordons demarcating just how far they were allowed to go in representing themselves.
Rich made a career of triggering that click a million times or more among both women and men. She touched all three generations since World War II for whom prosperity meant access to higher education and achieving equality under law. From a foothold in academe, first on the East Coast and later in California, Rich drew on a wide-ranging and detailed knowledge of U.S. and European history, protest movements, Judaism, art, law, and politics to express in essays, poetry, and speeches the impact of women's newly claimed consciousness and power. She was equal to the awakening she chronicled. An exhilarating interviewee and speaker in strong demand throughout the '70s and '80s, Rich conveyed the emergence of a multinational women's movement as a force that changed the 20th century as much as the splitting of the atom.
Aware of blowback in its many forms, Rich also named the reprisals women faced for breakthroughs in their leadership. Ridicule, hostile legislation and ballot measures, and vigilante violence against women's personhood could also target the institutions that were its proxies. That threat hit home for me the week before my 17th birthday. Under the cover of night, vandals attacked the Planned Parenthood clinic in my hometown of Kalamazoo, then subject to nonstop harassment of its patients and staff. The clinic was destroyed. The firebombing sent a message that still echoes in right-wing politics: Freedom for women is never free of retribution.
Today the traditional means of terrorizing women into submission in fixed roles of subservience and uncompensated nurturance have lost traction. Overreach -- like trying to bar women colleagues from speaking in a legislature, a tactic conservatives would condemn if practiced by the Taliban--is one sign of the desperation.
So is the case of Jennie Linn McCormack. The Idaho mom was taken into police custody in 2011 after officers showed up at her apartment in Pocatello and asked to see her fetus, based on a tip from the relative of a friend. McCormack, a single mother with three kids making do with a dry-cleaning job and a monthly $250 in child support, had decided five months prior, upon learning she was pregnant, that she could not afford another child.
Nor did it seem feasible to get an abortion, an onerous process in a vast state with only two clinics and many legal and logistical hurdles facing both women and providers. The service becomes even harder to obtain, and more expensive, the later in a pregnancy a woman seeks it. Based on advice from her sister, McCormack mail-ordered a prescription that she used to end her pregnancy, which she estimated at 14 weeks' duration.
Having lost her retail job amid whispering and scorn following the police investigation, McCormack has filed suit against the Idaho statute under which she remains at risk of prosecution. The "fetal pain" law due to be reviewed by a federal court next week all but forbids abortions after 19 weeks on the disputed notion that fetuses at that gestation are fully sentient. It threatens to send police, based on rumors and hearsay, to the doorsteps of women who have miscarried and turn hundreds of people into criminals. The prosecuting attorney who brought felony charges against McCormack underscored the punitive nature of the attack on women's health care, prioritizing embryos and fetuses over the security, liberty, and sustainability of women's lives. "I mean, she was obviously getting pregnant time and time again," Mark Heideman told the Los Angeles Times, "and not protecting the unborn fetus."
This is the first generation of women to take for granted the right to fully control their own bodies and have an equal say in the course of their state, country, and the world. That is why it is both deplorable and farcical that House Speaker John Boehner should call a hearing to consider legislation to undo women's right to choose that included no women. That is why it is understandable that women coast to coast erupted with fury when the country's biggest mouthpiece for right-wing causes called a Georgetown University law student barred from testifying at that hearing a "slut" and a "prostitute" for advocating full coverage for contraceptives as a prudent investment in a humane and equitable society.
And that is why men should pay attention. Tea Party extremists won elections in 2010 by preaching limited government and fiscal discipline to fix the economy. But they took the reins in legislatures, and took aim at President Obama's goals, with displays of heavy-handedness that ignored recovery and tread instead on the dignity of women, immigrants, gay people, union workers, scientists, and anyone daring to vote without a photo ID and perhaps an affidavit signed in triplicate by the Almighty. To call their glaring contradictions and misuse of authority a case of flimflammery in the public service is an insult to scammers. It's no wonder women are expressing a passionate engagement in Election 2012.
Yet achieving a country where freedom rings for real, rather than just in the rhetoric of extremist bullies, is not the sole obligation of women. Men should join in rejecting the attack on reproductive health and insisting on candidates who know the issues around access to contraceptives and abortion and promise to advocate and advance coverage, affordable care, and fairness. Men should demand the appointment of judges and vote to retain those who express similar commitments.
Twenty years ago, millions of men stood with women in defending abortion rights under the banner of "we won't go back," helping to make 1992 the Year of the Woman. These men, Democrats, independents, Greens, and many Republicans among them, must reawaken now to preempt further harm to progress in law and the everyday lives of Americans like Jennie Linn McCormack. A renewed coalition, including young activists and artists, immigrants, labor and LGBT allies, and others ready to exercise accountability through democratic means, can make this election a watershed.