The health of a society can often be seen in its treatment of women. With the latest attack on women’s fertility, the United States seems to be following a dangerous path. It’s time we pay attention to the warning signs and head them off at the pass.
Afghan women used to be free. They had access to higher education and many became doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians and other professionals. They could dress how they wanted, vote, and support themselves without the assistance of men. The Afghan constitution provided for equality for women. I’m sure Afghan women thought they had it all and that it would stay that way forever. Unfortunately, they were wrong.
After 20 years of civil war and political instability in Afghanistan, the Taliban — a group of fundamental religious extremists — took over the government. Initially, many Afghan citizens hoped that they would bring stability to their weary country, but this was not to be. Instead, one of the first things they did was systematically strip away the rights of women, starting with healthcare and education. The Taliban then went on to throw the country into further chaos and poverty. If the Afghan people had been paying attention, they would have realized that the treatment of women was the canary in the coal mine. Unfortunately, they did not heed the warning signs and now Afghanistan and her people are still recovering.
For those unfamiliar with the phrase, “the canary in the coal mine” alludes to the practice of 20th century miners to carry the birds into the coal mines with them. They did so because canaries are much more sensitive than humans to contaminated air. If the air became polluted with toxic gases, the birds would first stop singing and then would die. In other words, the canaries were used as an early warning system for the miners. The canaries were such effective sentinels that the phrase is now used to refer to a warning of danger. For those of us living in the United States, the state of women’s healthcare is the canary in the coal mine. Trouble is coming.
Especially for a country based on freedom, the U.S. has a curious relationship to equality for women. Although women have always been vital to the health and welfare of this country, we’ve had to fight for every single right we’ve gained. The right to vote was won through a vicious 72-year fight that included everything from personal belittlement and public humiliation, to hunger strikes and torture. The development and distribution of the birth control pill was obtained through the courage and dedication of two amazing women who endured derision and jail, yet still managed to take on the Catholic Church and win. Advocates for women’s rights have had to fight battles over violence against women, workplace justice, equal access to education and jobs, divorce and child custody, funding for athletics, and many other issues. Despite the uphill battles for practically everything related to women’s equality, some people still don’t believe that we need the Equal Rights Amendment which has been waiting since 1972 to be ratified. Yet we need it now more than ever because danger is on the horizon.
During all our previous hard-fought battles, the canary never stopped singing, but now its silence is deafening. The fight that brought on this silence is the biggest one of all — the one over women’s bodies. Let me be very clear here and say that this fight is about women’s fertility. It always has been. It’s never been about all the other issues the opponents of women’s freedom say it is. In an attempt to garner unquestioning support and to obfuscate the real issue, people who are against women’s freedom have claimed this battle is about life, taxes, religious freedom and morality. But it isn’t.
Women’s fertility is the bedrock of women’s freedom. Decades of international research has shown that when women’s fertility is high (i.e., when women cannot control if and when they bear children), women’s literacy is low. Because they cannot control their bodies, women are less likely to get an education or work outside of the home. And if they are stuck in the home taking care of a passel of kids, women are much less likely to vote, hold much sway in community or national affairs, or even have a lot of choice in the kind of relationships they have. Personal autonomy is limited because women are forced to rely heavily on the men in their lives. And, oh yeah, women’s life expectancy also ends up being pretty low.
So yes, control over fertility matters a great deal. If you cannot control your own body, things get bad fairly quickly. However, when women can decide how many children they want or even if they want children at all, life is dramatically improved. In addition to having better health and longer lives, research has demonstrated repeatedly that when women can decide for themselves about childbearing, they are free to enjoy sex more and mothering becomes a happier role. Women are also able to go out and participate in ways that have nothing to do with childrearing.
Apparently, it is this freedom that scares so many people. It is their fear that has made the toxic gas swirling over the last 30 years rise and the canary quit singing. The people who fear women’s freedom have slowly but steadily chipped away at our right to control our own bodies. They have made it more difficult by taking away funding for the healthcare that poor women and girls desperately need. The proponents of small government are (ironically) insisting that laws interfering with women’s intimate medical decisions be passed. Lawmakers are holding hearings on women’s healthcare issues and are refusing to allow women to even have a voice in them. Men are deciding for women just what it is that we can and cannot do with our healthcare and our bodies. As Justice Harry Blackmun presciently said in 1989, “For today, the women of this Nation still retain the liberty to control their destinies. But the signs are evident and very ominous, and a chill wind blows.”
Even over 20 years ago Justice Blackmun could see the looming menace, and now its specter is increasingly clear. Just last week, Rush Limbaugh, a popular conservative radio show host, used his bully pulpit to mock, insult and belittle an incredible young woman who had the temerity to testify before Congress on women’s need for contraceptive coverage. He also insulted her female classmates at Georgetown University, and insinuated that any woman who wants to have her birth control covered by insurance (as they cover many other fertility-related things, like vasectomies and Viagra) is a slut and a prostitute. His comments caused a huge national outcry but, for me, Mr. Limbaugh is not the issue. His on-air personality is vile but he is not even the most heinous opponent to women’s freedom. Instead, what his comments have done is make visible the toxic gas that has been around for decades. It’s been chilling to see the number of people in power (mostly men) who seem to agree with him. Thus, the double standard for women’s sexuality and the intense desire to control women’s fertility is out in full force. For the first time in a long while, we can actually see the dangerous attitudes that we’ve been breathing and it is terrifying. Where will this end?
When I used to teach my Psychology of Women course, I would tell my students that the attack on abortion was just the opening salvo in the fight to control women’s fertility and that it wouldn’t stop there. My students thought I was being an alarmist and scoffed at the very idea that people would dare to go after women’s contraception since, in their minds, it was practically an unalienable right. I’m sure Afghan women also thought their freedom was assured, but we all know how that ended. Their canary got sick and died and, for a time, their society did too. If we Americans don’t want fundamental religious extremists dictating to our society, then we must be vigilant about how women are being treated, because that will signal how everything else will go. So we must beware: our canary has stopped singing. We can still get to safety, but only if we start running now.