Women’s issues have been intermittently eating up great amounts of news time in the United States recently, especially when it comes to reproductive health, and right now, a nation-wide debate is taking place on this topic. For a secular country, this debate is quite ideological, and as various pundits and politicians commit unfortunate slips of the tongue, this debate is revealing ignorance of (or possibly indifference to) basic facts about women’s health. This is coupled with a tendency to politicize issues concerning reproductive health: a practice that shifts focus from women’s well-being to political or religious allegiance.
The most direct example of this involves Barack Obama’s recent healthcare bill, in which there was a mandate that all employers must provide preventative treatments/services to their employees free of charge. Access to contraception is one such preventative service. This angered many religious institutions, which felt it was an assault on religious expression to force them to provide a service to which they were ideologically opposed. Even with a compromise from the Obama administration (putting the mandate on the insurance company to provide contraception for female employees working at religious institutions, thus removing the mandate from the institution itself), there was still outcry, and a congressional hearing on the subject was held. No women spoke at this hearing. To justify complaints about the lack of female witnesses, one Representative Joe Walsh said, “This is not about women. This is not about contraception. This is about religious freedom.” (Quotation courtesy of the New York Times)
Following this congressional hearing, a law student named Sandra Fluke (who had been denied time to speak at said hearing) testified before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee (don’t worry, I’m from the States and I’m not entirely sure what they do either), outlining why she and many of her peers saw the need for a contraception mandate, citing the financial burden on those who needed contraception, but did not have it covered under their employer’s health insurance plan. After this testimony, Sandra Fluke was met with a barrage of verbal attacks from conservative media, not the least of which was an undoubtedly misogynistic tirade from far-right wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh, calling Fluke a “slut” because “she must be paid to have sex.”
In the United States, we have a situation in which a woman spoke out on an issue of female reproductive health and was personally and disproportionately attacked in the media. In the United States, there is still a stigma attached to birth control, even though a 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine cited that 99% of American women of reproductive age who have had sex with a man have relied on some form of contraception. It would appear that America has an uncanny knack to politicize female reproductive health in ways that the United Kingdom seems to have avoided. In a way, by inflating the small issue of accessible contraception, the United States has made it a big issue: an issue that directly involves the future of reproductive rights and calls to attention the still-present hostility towards sexually active women (especially those who are open about it). While this issue has faded into the periphery of the presidential election, it is still something to keep in mind, as I, an American woman, assess exactly what that means.
Photo credit: Beppie K