Yesterday saw some degree of success for women in Arizona as a bill that would allow employers to drop coverage of birth control from their health insurance if being used to prevent pregnancy was stalled. The bill provided that employers with religious or moral objections could demand evidence that drugs are being used for reasons other than as a contraceptive, including various gynaecological conditions which are treated using the pill. Given that in the US most workers rely on their employee insurance for health coverage, this bill would force women workers to disclose their personal medical circumstances to their employers as well as remove the legal right of women to control their own body and reproduction.
This bill is only the latest in a string of attacks on women’s rights by Republicans from Congress to state level, in what is being termed the Republican War on Women. Last October US Congress passed a bill where hospitals would allow women to die rather than perform life saving abortions, becoming known as the ‘Let Women Die’ bill. A state legislator in Georgia argued for changing the legal term for victims of rape and domestic violence to ‘accuser’, whilst, predictable, leaving victims of other crimes such as robbery or assault as victims. In Maryland Republicans ended funding for a pre-school kids programme, using the rationale that women should not be out working but instead be at home with their children. There has also been an attempt to redefine rape so that it only counts as rape if violence is involved as part of a general bill to end funding for abortion providers. These are only a few high profile examples of the past year which saw a record number of bills against women’s rights across the US with the blatant aim of controlling women’s sexuality.
Yet for all the justifiable outrage that most – both in the US and here in the UK – feel at such misogyny, a word of caution is necessary in the general discourse. It is too easy to dismiss such bills as the work of loony evangelicals who have somehow gained too much power in US politics. It is of course true that such bills have been proposed by the Christian right wing yet there has been little serious attempt by the Democrats to oppose such measures or produce a counter-discourse. Often ignored is that in Obama’s term hundreds of anti-abortion laws have been proposed and many passed without substantial Democrat opposition. Obama and the Democrats are then able to pose as progressive on women’s rights against the old-fashioned sexism of the Republicans, without actually progressing women’s rights at all.
The case of the Virginia legalised rape bill is instructive. The bill required all women wanting an abortion to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound which was completely medically unnecessary. This is a highly invasive procedure that actually violated Virginia states own rape laws, as would involve the penetration of the vagina with an object without the (uncoerced) consent of the woman. The bill provoked outrage and was eventually delayed, yet this came not from the Democrats but from women’s groups who organised a high profile media campaign and well attended demonstrations at the state Capitol. This demonstrates the power that women have in fighting against a state which has no interest in protecting their rights. However, successful as this action was, women need to move from the defensive to the offensive-there are seven other states which already have the requirement for a transvaginal ultrasound for women requiring an abortion. There is a need for a fighting women’s movement, which not only reacts to attempts to roll back women’s rights but organises to fight for women and force the state to recognise their equality.