I’m beginning to think I grew up in a charmed time in America. Do we all think that? Perhaps we must, because I was born in the middle of the Vietnam War, just before Watergate and the oil embargo. How could anyone consider that to be a charmed era?
But the politics I remember from my childhood are post-civil rights era, Cold War politics. Everyone was a patriot. We didn’t all agree, but we were in a cause together. I remember as a child and teenager being grateful to be living in a post-women’s lib, post-civil rights world. My class at Bolivar Central in rural West Tennessee was one of the first that had been integrated from kindergarten on. In elementary school, I wanted to be a nuclear engineer or a neurosurgeon. I was encouraged, not ridiculed.
When I came to Vanderbilt, I became a liberal. [Oh, if you only knew the irony. At the time, the Vanderbilt campus was solid, solid Republican, but not active. Very much George H.W. Bush, WASP-ish GOP.] But regardless, I felt my voice was valued in the world. While I believed that gender discrimination still existed, it felt clear to me that it was someone else’s problem. Perhaps the cashiers at Wal-Mart, for instance. The Lilly Ledbetters of the world, even. In the professional world, I believed that women stood on equal footing with men.
I still think that’s true, for the most part, even though the United States still has abysmal percentages of women business and political leaders. I stand on the shoulders of giants — and I am daily grateful for the women who fought the battles that allowed me to be where I am today.
But it is now clear to me that our battles are not yet over. Some of the most important ones are beginning now. The rest of this discussion takes two paths. Some of you may only be interested in one, so I will divide them here.
- Path 1: The spiritual path
- Path 2: The legal path
The spiritual path
I’ve said before here that I’m liberal. Actually, I’m really not sure how to categorize myself, but I think that’s the closest term in today’s American politics. I’m extremely libertarian on civil rights issues — still waiting for a candidate who agrees with me here. I’m a moderate on fiscal issues, and I’m definitely liberal on social issues. Yet I believe life begins at conception — that there’s a divine spark that connects us all, and that it exists from before time as we know it. I am officially United Methodist, but I believe we all really make God in our own image — how could we do otherwise? — and that divine grace is available to us all in a variety of ways, and that “my way” is most assuredly incorrect, as is yours.
I am pro-choice. I have a hard time seeing how others aren’t, unless they are following an old-testament God of retribution. I reconcile that as easily as one can with the belief that life begins at conception, I suppose. I also understand the medical facts that tell us that many fertilized eggs never become babies, and that “life” probably wasn’t really there at all, not the way we understand it with our limited knowledge. I know that current medical science can’t necessarily distinguish between what will become a person and what won’t, especially early.
I think that Paul Ryan was right, if callous, when he was quoted as saying that rape is just “another method of conception.” Biology doesn’t care how the sperm and egg meet. And I believe that no compassionate God would force a woman — or a teenage incest victim — to live with a sexual assault for 9 more months after the fact, forever changing her body, forcing her to explain again and again what happened to strangers on the street as well as everyone she knows, when they wondered about her pregnancy. No God I know would deny her emergency contraception, the abortion pill, or a medical abortion, if that’s what she needed to be whole again. No God I know would deny the 100% personhood of the living woman with 3 hungry children, an abusive boyfriend and a minimum wage job. No God I know would say those children will have to be a little hungrier because their food has to be divided by 4 instead of 3.
Our society doesn’t care about poor children and women who didn’t get a fair shake themselves. The politicians in power in many parts of the country today profess to care a lot about unborn babies, but they offer little beyond blame for their mothers. There is little discussion at all of the men who made these women pregnant. I find this the most repugnant expression of faith — to care more for the child-who-might-be, to value it over the living woman, her living children, those already-born and suffering in front of you. How many angels can we dance on the head of this pin?
Please do not respond to tell me about the charitable works you have done — or that you think that personal and not governmental charity is responsible for the poor among us. Because I see with my own eyes that you, and I, and everyone else who professes to care has not yet done enough. We are not enough on our own. And so, yes, from a spiritual perspective, I am pro-choice, I demand we do more to help the poor, to level the world we live in. When we have solved those problems, when we’ve taught our kids how to safely have sex and not get pregnant or sick, when we’ve given every woman who wants it full access to contraception, then we can talk about first world problems like too many women here get abortions. Here’s a news flash — if more teenagers understood their biology better, and more women had the contraception they wanted, we’d have fewer abortions. [See the latest data on the decline in abortions in Massachusetts, where women got access to contraception and health care thanks to Romney's universal coverage -- coverage he'd like to eliminate for the rest of us.] No one thinks that an abortion is a happy choice. A woman makes that choice because it’s the best one she has. Think about that for a while.
The legal path
This path is the one that matters. I am horrified at the religious aggressives — such a descriptive term from Henry Blodget today — who are running the show in American politics today. Todd Akin, Paul Ryan, the majority of the Tennessee General Assembly, and many more beyond them are all working to enact a conservative Christian agenda into law in this country. The end result of this effort will not allow women to hold an equal footing in society with men, regardless of their actual intent, which I don’t pretend to understand. The reason really does boil down to the biological imperative: Women have to control their reproductive health to control their lives. The reason women continue not to make as much as men is now almost entirely due to childbirth and rearing. Today’s battle for equal rights is the battle for women to control their reproductive health.
The biggest legal problem here is obvious to me, if not to the lawmakers writing these laws. They’re writing legislation based on their own faith. I can’t see how this is constitutional, but it continues to pass muster with the conservative courts the same political structure creates. These are similar — if not always exactly the same — to the people who decry Sharia law, as if it were an actual threat in the United States.
You’re free to be as pro-life as you like. You’re free not to use contraception yourself. You’re free to carry your rapist’s baby to term. But our constitution says that you aren’t allowed to make me do the same, because that’s instantiating a state religion, and we don’t do that here. Officially. If you had some non-religious reason that any of that was in the best interest of the state, we’d get to have a conversation about it. But there isn’t one.
My initial reaction to the kind of political discussions we’ve seen this summer is, I haven’t done enough. I’ve been coasting on my foremothers’ wings, and I need to spend time to fight for my own rights, for my daughters.
My very-close-behind-second-reaction is, Hell no. In no way am I responsible for a U.S. representative having an incredibly cock-eyed misunderstanding of biology. I shouldn’t have to march in the street to guarantee equal treatment by my government — I’m supposed to have that already.
I was wrong. This isn’t over. It’s going to take me, and you, and lots more people to say how absolutely crazy it is that we’re having to re-fight for women’s rights in 2012. Until then, yes, I’ll continue to be a single-issue voter. Since my first presidential vote in 1992, though I’ve followed all the campaigns with interest, I’ve only had one question when I had to decide about my vote: Which candidate is less likely to appoint a fundamentalist to the Supreme Court? That’s my candidate. There’s a thin line propping up Roe v. Wade, and I have to continue to support it. Until religious conservatives quit trying to legislate in my bedroom and my uterus, I can’t vote with them. This country faces a lot of issues that I think need a serious discussion by both sides, but until I know that my rights and my daughters’ rights to live freely and make our own medical decisions are protected, I can’t vote on any other issue. I never have.
In the end, I’m pretty grateful to Todd Akin. Not everyone noticed, but he’s just toeing the Republican platform line. That’s right — just after the Akin uproar, the GOP platform committee affirmed its support for a complete ban on abortion — no exceptions for life or health of the mother, for rape, for incest, for any reason at all. My friend Diane Willard tonight pointed me to H.R. 212, a bill cosponsored by both Akin and Ryan. It would have the effect of killing thousands of women who develop ectopic pregnancies every year — and, of course, save no babies. I’m grateful to Akin for saying out loud what many women have been ignoring for years. I think an open discussion of the fact that many conservative elected officials would like to tell my doctor and me what kind of health care I can have is the best way to end that problem. I am just optimistic enough to believe that the American people really don’t want that. I just need some more single-issue voters.