Recently, I’ve been reading books and watching movies related to women’s rights (or lack thereof) and their suppression by the men in their family. It wasn’t a conscious choice, it’s just something that happened by chance. It started with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed, in which she devotes almost an entire chapter to marriages of convenience in the 1930s. Such marriages were very prevalent in India even until a decade ago – and still are in a number of communities. These are marriages between families, where oftentimes the woman isn’t really given much choice in the matter. The men, of course, can choose – and that choice was almost always based on something as transient as looks. In Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, the main protagonist, Iris, was married off to industrialist Richard Griffin to save her family’s factories. The novel follows her disastrous marriage and the sexual abuse her sister suffered at the hands of her husband. Both of these books present the plight of the woman as a thing of the past, but not Bol. This is a bold movie to have come out of Pakistan recently, and highlights the plight of women, who are subjected to the tyranny of the male head of the house, in the present day. The movie deals with a number of important issues in that country – birth control, discrimination against gays, and the lack of choice for women. Some would think these issues are currently faced mainly by developing countries. They would be wrong.
As I read The Men Behind The War on Women on Huffington Post recently, I was shocked and enraged at the blatant disregard displayed by The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops with regard to women’s reproductive health.
“Over the past two years the GOP-controlled House of Representatives has launched one of the most extreme assaults on women’s choice the U.S. has seen in decades. Republicans voted twice to slash federal family planning funds for low-income women, moved to prevent women from using their own money to buy insurance plans that cover abortion, introduced legislation that would force women to have ultrasounds before receiving an abortion and, most recently, passed a bill that will allow hospitals to refuse to perform emergency abortions for women with life-threatening pregnancy complications. But the erosion of women’s rights didn’t begin with the GOP takeover…Lift the curtain, and behind the assault was the conference of bishops.”
As if this weren’t enough, the Catholic Bishops have now launched a high-intensity campaign against birth control. Yes. Against.
I thought it was only the poor and uneducated lot who still thought that birth control was a direct affront to the heavens and that once married, women were supposed to set up a baby production factory. Apparently, I was wrong. The church, of course, has always been anti-abortion, but to take away choice from women, even in the case of rape, incest or complications and potential danger to the mother’s life, is barbaric.
The bishops are now lobbying against The Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) insurance coverage guidelines stating that all health plans under the Affordable Care Act cover birth control at no cost for women. Although the rules offer religious exemption to churches, Catholic-affiliated organizations such as charities and hospitals would still have to cover birth control for their employees.
Arguing that the exemption is too narrow, the bishops want the Obama administration to either entirely remove the coverage of birth control or to offer an exemption to all Catholic organizations. This would mean that thousands of women who work for these organizations, even if they are not themselves Catholic, would be denied the preventative health coverage options available to most other women in the US.
If you thought the bishops were lobbying for these measures only on religious grounds, you would be wrong. They’re fighting because of the large sums of money at stake. The HHS recently dropped the bishops from a five-year, $19 million contract to help victims of sexual trafficking. The bishops think they were dropped because they do not offer victims the full range of contraceptive and gynecological services, such as abortion referrals, birth control pills and condoms, provided by other agencies.
At the end of the day, then, it is the lure of money that is going to strip women of their rights and choice when it comes to their personal reproductive health and even their life.
Bishop William Lori defends the bishops’ actions thus: “We recognize that not everybody shares that teaching; nevertheless, it is a fundamental right for the church to stand by their convictions.” Doesn’t this reek of duplicity? By forcing legislation that will deny birth control and abortion to millions of women, the bishops are effectively imposing their views on the fundamental rights of individuals.
What’s probably worse, though, is that this isn’t the only legislation in question. Women across US states have lost major ground this year. Already, about 80 measures have been enacted to restrict access to abortion, all of which violate international human rights standards. These include Ohio’s ban on abortion once a heartbeat can be detected (6–10 weeks’ gestation); and a state ballot initiative in Mississippi, which if passed, would mandate personhood from the moment of fertilization. This could potentially outlaw the most popular forms of contraception; would treat destroyed eggs as murder victims, essentially making abortion illegal; and would prohibit scientists from destroying embryos created in laboratories, a process that is often required during in vitro fertilization and scientific research.
No matter what your individual stand on abortion might be, most of these measures go against a number of commonly accepted reproductive and human rights. Indeed, as the world moves towards decriminalizing abortion, one of the most developed nations is effectively muzzling women’s right to choice.