The XX Factor

Martha Plimpton: Stop Undermining Women’s Health With Personhood Amendments and Ultrasound Laws

Actress Martha Plimpton

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The Senate is slated to vote soon on legislation proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) that would make it legal for any insurer or employer to deny insurance coverage for any medical treatment or service to which it has a “moral” objection. Obviously, this legislation is designed with one goal in mind:  To undermine the fundamental principle behind the Affordable Care Act––that all Americans deserve a basic standard of health care coverage. Senator Blunt was inspired by the fight two years ago over the birth control benefit as part of women’s health care packages. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops took issue with this provision of the act, even though the Obama administration had already put in place exemptions for religious institutions similar to those in effect in multiple states for years. The president further amended the benefit to the satisfaction of religiously affiliated institutions like the Catholic Health Association.

Still, the Republicans had found their ideal wedge issue. And now, they are going to run with it.

But notice who is getting the most heat: women. Once again, amazingly, a culture war over women’s health, specifically, their sexual health, has been ignited. Without any serious economic argument against the provisions in the ACA, “matters of conscience” becomes the rallying cry. And women, as always, make the best target. It’s easier to lecture women on sexual morality than it is to explain why all Americans shouldn’t have comprehensive, fair, and equal health care coverage. And it’s easier to wage a campaign of dis-information about Planned Parenthood and the Girl Scouts than it is to bring jobs back to your state. 

It’s long been accepted as fact that the availability of family planning services saves lives. Where women have access to these services, children and families are healthier, and society at large benefits. So the question becomes, what is it exactly about family planning that upsets so many conservatives?

Most of the time, when you ask a conservative, their answer doesn’t even attempt to address matters of public health, or economics, or science, or even medicine. Instead, the moral concept of “consequences” gets thrown up. We are expected to believe that using birth control or the decision to have an abortion––for any reason––prevents us from learning the “consequences” of our actions, namely, of having sex. In other words, the argument goes, women are too ignorant, too thoughtless, and too confused to make decisions about their own bodies, so the state has an obligation to step in and teach them a moral lesson. 

But Republicans are forgetting that women have been paying the consequences of life without family planning for thousands of years. And that’s why we need, and want, contraception. We have made that known in poll after poll in recent weeks, showing a huge majority favor of an insurance coverage mandate for birth control. Even a whopping 61 percent of Catholics support it, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll.

Women know the financial, social and physical costs of not having access to basic health care. And make no mistake, contraception is basic health care. Yet the all-male panel at Rep. Issa’s congressional hearing on birth control coverage last week, at which no woman who disagreed with him was permitted to speak, exposed the persistent belief that women simply do not know what is best for them and are not qualified to comment.

But it doesn’t stop at just keeping women from speaking.

In several states, “ultrasound laws,” which clearly violate the constitutional ban on imposing an “undue burden” on abortion rights, are being forced on women regardless of their medical necessity. These laws carry only one purpose, and that is to humiliate and emotionally manipulate women who seek an abortion.

Various so-called “personhood amendments” which could effectively outlaw hormonal birth control and all abortion, period, are shown to be wildly unpopular when put to a statewide vote. Such laws were rejected by huge margins by voters in Colorado and Mississippi. In Virginia the senate has decided to shelve similar legislation, no doubt due to the tremendous public pressure they’ve received from outraged citizens who are starting to get a clearer picture of just how far their lawmakers are willing to go to curtail their rights. Yet numerous other state legislatures are moving forward with forcing women to take a back seat to their biology.

It would appear that no matter how unpopular––or unconstitutional––these proposed laws are, there is a persistent and growing campaign in this country to undermine decades of progress for women. Women’s health and physical freedom are under attack in this country so that one party may try to win votes by staking a claim on the moral imperatives of the entire nation. 

But we don’t live in caves anymore. And it has long been known that where women have the ability to control their own reproductive lives, standards of living rise, children are healthier, education levels rise, and women’s contributions to society increase. This is true in developing countries around the world, and in countries across Europe where low rates of teen pregnancy and infant mortality put ours to shame. When you keep women from exercising their right to physical self-determination, the actual consequences reveal themselves. It’s long past time we started focusing on the solutions that actually keep women healthy, instead of using basic aspects of women’s health as a tool of cultural, moral, and political control.