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July 30, 2007

Should We "De-politicize" Reproductive Health?

Two weeks ago when I live-blogged the Big 3 Democratic campaigns' speeches to Planned Parenthood, a TAPPED commenter chided me for even caring about the distinctions between the candidates on reproductive health. In Roe, the Supreme Court tried to take abortion out of the political realm by calling it a private decision between a woman and a doctor, so "your biggest *enemy* is politicization," the commenter wrote.

Sure, in an ideal world. In the real world, the right to access abortion and contraception has always been politicized. When Margaret Sanger began handing out condoms at her Brownsville, Brooklyn clinic in 1916, contraception was illegal, and she served 30 days in prison for the crime. It wasn't until the late 1930s that, due to the work of Sanger and other activists, very limited contraception was legalized in many states. Today, access to contraception continues to be politically controlled in a number of ways. Some states are passively or actively allowing pharmacists to refuse to provide birth control pills and emergency contraception, even though pharmacists are compelled to provide any other drug that is available and has been prescribed by a doctor. And obviously, the long delay in approving Plan B for over-the-counter access was nothing if not a political game in which women's health advocates scored only a partial victory, since the drug -- which doctors say is completely safe for teenagers -- remains out of reach for women under 18.

I don't want to get too far into a discussion of how abortion has been politicized throughout history, because most of us understand the basics. Abortion has always existed -- women passed from generation to generation painful methods to induce miscarriage, such as herb mixtures and crude surgeries. In early America, abortion was legal before "quickening," or when the fetus can first be felt moving in the fourth month or so. But during the nineteenth century, a rash of states began to criminalize abortion at any point during a pregnancy. Roe appeared late on the scene; in the 1930s, 2,700 American women died annually from botched, illegal abortion procedures, and even in liberal New York City women were hauled in front of grand juries and asked to reveal who had performed their undergound abortion procedures. Today, abortion is politicized in a number of ways: through Supreme Court decisions banning certain abortion procedures, laws limiting when a woman can access an abortion and for what reason, laws compelling women to hear medically inaccurate information about abortion's health "risks" before undergoing the procedure, mandatory waiting periods between when a woman asks for an abortion and when she can receive one, and a federal ban on funding abortions for low-income women who rely on public health plans.

The lack of access to contraception and abortion is everybody's problem, because everybody -- women and men -- can be responsible for and the victim of chance accidents. Yet our legal system treats adult women like children when it comes to reproductive health choices. If you are a man who has sex with women, or any person, really, who is concerned about individual liberties, reproductive justice issues are your issues, too. As progressives, we need to unite behind reproductive justice, not support "de-politicization."

We need a president, Congress, state legislatures, and governors who will actively roll back limitations to reproductive rights, not who will sit on their hands and say, "I won't do anything to further threaten reproductive health." I dream about a world in which women's health choices are de-politicized, but alas, I don't live in one. So until I do, it's something I'll be looking out for in every election. Conservatives certainly are.

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Comments

I recently saw a comment on another progressive blog suggesting that both reproductive and gay rights were somehow ephemeral issues, distracting us from real left goals such as universal health care and economic fairness. Although I am in many ways an old school social dem, I took strong issue with this. It seems to me that there are few things bond up more strongly with notions of fairness than people being able to love whom they wish and to not have to breed against their wills. If you are defining fundamentals in human freedom it would seem hard to pick too many things that top these.

It is the right wing who have politicized contraception. It is essentially a non-controversial issue for roughly three quarters of the populace. And yet, we have to fight tooth and nail just to get things like Plan B on the market.

It's certainly true that anti-abortion activists seem to have the forefront of issues among conservative candidates, while on the left those who focus on choice issues tend to be segmented off from the rest of the left. As if there are issues that "progressives" care about and there are issues that "women" or "feminists" care about. The overlap between the two is frighteningly small.

Although many "progressives" would say they also support the efforts of those who care about choice, they spend very little time talking or writing about it.

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