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"Non-Personhood" for Women: Defining Women Down

The "right-to-life" movement that elevates embryonic life above women's lives is more accurately termed "right-to-prenatal-life." Aside from South Dakota's attempt to outlaw abortion outright, with select exceptions for the health and life of women, one of the most extreme 2008 anti-abortion ballot measures is the so-called "Personhood" amendment proposed in Colorado (Montana lacked signatures to qualify a similar ballot measure) defining fertilized eggs as persons, thus granting embryos Fourteenth Amendment rights to "life, liberty and due process of law." Simultaneously, rightists have opposed the same rights for women as "reading feminism into the Constitution."


Looking beneath the surface, abortion serves as a surrogate for a spectrum of unspoken issues related to female personhood and male entitlement. The anti-abortion litmus test was introduced over 30 years ago by Paul Weyrich, who dictated that women step aside and "make way for new life." The political standard serves dual purposes - the marginalization of women and the lightning rod around which to mobilize political coalitions, notably, fundamentalist evangelicals and Catholics. The elevation of fetal life over women's lives coupled with conservative strategist Howard Phillips' goal, euphemistically described as return to "one-family-one-vote," is calculated to marginalize and disenfranchise women, consistent with the ultra-right tenet that select white Christian males alone retain the right to vote or hold office.

Consistently overshadowed by the more easily sensationalized issue of abortion, birth control remains a primary target of the political right. Representing a slippery slope to 19th century status for women, birth control is being redefined as abortion. So-called "conscience clauses" permit pharmacists and health care providers to refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions or to provide health care based on individual religious beliefs.

The proposed rule of the Bush Department of Health and Human Services redefines abortion as termination of pregnancy from the point of conception, disregarding the medical definition of pregnancy beginning with "the implantation of a fertilized egg." The HHS proposal states, "[T]he conscience of the individual or institution should be paramount in determining what constitutes abortion..." - granting anyone the right to hold women's health care hostage to their beliefs.

The rules change would accomplish the frank goal of the right - to implicate doctors providing women's health care and to outlaw birth control, a primary means to eliminate the need for abortion. Motivated in part by demographic fear of declining Christian numbers, Pat Robertson rejects the privacy right to contraception upheld in Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965): "I want to see it abolished."

Rickie Solinger concluded from her historical research of women's health care that women's rights have often been held hostage by politicians and others with "political agendas hostile to female autonomy and racial equality" (Wake Up Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade, 1992). The criminalization of contraception and abortion, and the widespread U.S. adoption black market that assigned value to babies and punishment to women based on race, were some effects of pre-Roe efforts to control women's reproduction.

Issues encompassing welfare, contraception, abortion and sex education remain at the nexus of an ideological agenda that marginalizes and imputes inferiority and sexual sin to women and minorities, while protecting male power and prerogatives of behavior.

Male-dominated church and state institutions that seek control of female sexuality and reproduction have invested comparable energy and time in denial/cover-up of such phenomena as clergy abuse and domestic violence. Naming domestic violence a "myth" and intrusion into the traditional family, political rightists have seized every opportunity to defund domestic violence programs - cut by half at the time of 1996 welfare reform.

Former Colorado governor Bill Owens penned a denial piece in Focus on the Family's periodical (9/95) attributing domestic violence to "non-traditional family structures." Acknowledgment of domestic violence within marriage would "discourage young people from marrying," protested another conservative.

Marty Nalitz, former Colorado Christian Coalition associate director and Independence Institute adjunct, is among those who advocate one vote per household, "preferring not to see women in public office." "Strict constructionists" like Nalitz harken to the time of the founding fathers, when only property-owning white males enjoyed the right to vote. "Every one of those guys was a right-wing Bible-thumping fundamentalist!" he enthused. Women and minorities have been denigrated as "Fourteenth Amendment citizens" by ultra-rightists. No doubt that while some on the right recoil at the idea of electing a woman, others welcome the cooperation of a woman intent upon undermining the rights of women.

At core, Weyrich's anti-abortion, anti-contraceptive and abstinence-only prescription serves as cornerstone of the right-wing's anticipated male supremacist theocracy. It is the platform upon which the majority of Republican candidates continue to run in 2008. Though his rhetoric has waivered, John McCain has a "two-and-a-half-decade-long perfectly anti-abortion voting record" -- his record on contraception is "no better," writes Sara Blustain in The New Republic (8-27-08). John McCain's website states: "John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned, and as president he will nominate judges who understand that courts should not be in the business of legislating from the bench." On this issue, he and his vice presidential choice, Sarah Palin, are in sync.

Barack Obama's website reinforces his support of access to abortion, stating that as president he "will make preserving women's rights and Roe v. Wade a priority...He opposes any Constitutional Amendment to overturn" Roe v. Wade.

McCain and others on the right who invoke "original intent" of the Constitution in opposition to abortion disregard the Ninth Amendment guarantee that all rights possessed by the people at the time the Constitution was written are retained, unless explicitly given up in the Constitution. Abortion remained legal in the United States until 1869, when doctors lobbied to make it illegal except as a medical decision, in part to eliminate competition from midwives who provided much of reproductive health care at the time. Eighteenth century cookbooks commonly contained recipes for herbal abortifacients. Abortion was legal and accepted at the time the Constitution was drafted, thus guaranteeing the right based on the Ninth Amendment alone. Original intent supports abortion rights.

The greatest conceit - that pregnancy is not a health issue and women's lives are expendable - underlies the dual standards of Republican Party pronatalist policy demanding female submission to males who assume the right to hold women hostage to biology.

A former nurse, Michele Swenson has researched and written about the history of women's health care, as well as religious fundamentalist and gun-centered ideologies, the intersection of which are described in her book Democracy Under Assault: TheoPolitics, Incivility and Violence on the Right .

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