for the Old Mole, September 1, 2008
Today is Labor Day. Most nations celebrate Labor day on May first, to commemorate the eight hour work day and the Haymarket riot, while we in the US celebrate instead the less radical date associated with outdoor barbecue and the end of white shoe season.
But this Labor Day, I’m thinking about Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a future American theocracy in which declining fertility has led to assigning still-fertile women the role of designated breeders, or handmaids. Along with dystopian controls on women’s roles and bodies, the novel’s regime features the rewriting of history. “Yesterday was July the Fourth,” the narrator recalls at one point, “which used to be Independence day, before they abolished it. September the first will be Labor Day, they still have that. Though it didn’t used to have anything to do with mothers.”
Of course it’s true that mothering is work even if it isn’t waged, and parenting is labor even if one doesn’t give birth.
But still. It is, after all, only one of the many forms of human labor.
I’m thinking about The Handmaid’s Tale in part because on August 22, the department of Health and Human Services proposed a regulation that would allow health care providers not only to refuse to provide abortion – as they are already permitted to do under existing federal employment law—but would further allow those health care providers not to refer a patient to another provider but simply to withhold information about available options. Moreover, because the regulation leaves the definition of “abortion” to providers, it is vulnerable to the mislabelling that has allowed some anti-choice activists to describe IUDs, Plan B Emergency contraception, and even birth control pills as forms of “abortion.”
HHS is accepting public comment on the regulation through September 25, and the Planned Parenthood website has a link that makes it easy to submit your responses.
Two years ago in Salon dot com, Priya Jain reported on the growing anti-contraception movement. She quotes Gloria Feldt, the former president of Planned Parenthood, who notes, "When you peel back the layers of the anti-choice motivation, it always comes back to two things: What is the nature and purpose of human sexuality? And second, what is the role of women in the world?" Sex and the role of women are inextricably linked, because "if you can separate sex from procreation, you have given women the ability to participate in society on an equal basis with men."
Cristina Page, vice president of the Institute for Reproductive Health Access at NARAL Pro-Choice New York, notes that the anti-choice movement has succeeded in pushing legislation that, though seemingly unrelated to contraception, helps support its cause. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures , at least 19 states have fetal homicide laws that apply to "'any state of gestation,' 'conception,' 'fertilization' or post-fertilization" -- meaning that one can be convicted of manslaughter or murder for destroying a fertilized egg, even if it hasn't implanted itself in a woman's uterus.
Page says she has noticed, too, that some anti-choice groups tend not only to oppose birth control, they also oppose child care. In her book, "How the Pro-Choice Movement Saved America: Freedom, Politics, and the War on Sex," she points to some troubling statistics and anecdotes: “Ninety percent of senators who opposed the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act are anti-choice; in the 2004 Children's Defense Fund ranking of the legislators best and worst for children, the 113 worst senators and Congress members are all anti-choice; Web sites like Lifesite and that of the Illinois Right to Life Committee post reports linking child care and aggression; Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America stress the damage that day care can have on a child. (Most of their information comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development's Early Child Care Report, which has been debunked again and again and again.) "The trifecta is ban contraception, ban abortion, make child care impossible," says Page.”
Frances Kissling, of Catholics for Free Choice, agrees that the ultimate message is that "mommy should stay home and take care of the kiddies. This is bound up in this notion of men at the head of a family, of women's identity as linked to their biological capacity, that men and women are complementary and different, that a woman's primary function is motherhood."
Keeping women at home as caretakers fits with the neoliberal elimination of public sector social supports for families, as the authors of the Beyond Marriage statement have observed: “the Right has mounted a long-term strategic battle to dismantle all public service and benefit programs and civic values that were established beginning in the 1930s, initially as a response to widening poverty and the Great Depression. The push to privatize Social Security and many other human needs benefits, programs, and resources that serve as lifelines for many . . . is at the center of this attack. In fact, all but the most privileged households and families are in jeopardy as a result of a wholesale right-wing assault on funding for human needs, including Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, HIV-AIDS research and treatment, public education, affordable housing, and more.”
In fairness, not all anti-choice groups seem to oppose child care. Feminists for Life, a group that has gotten some public attention since one of its members became the Republican nominee for Vice President, claims that young women should have the right to bear a child and have access to high-quality, affordable child care. While no feminist would be likely to disagree with that point, Ruth Rosen reports that Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, is “vague and evasive” about what excatly the group does to promote access to child care. Rosen notes that Foster speaks “as though she had invented the idea of child care and describes pioneer feminists of the 1960s and 1970s as selfish, diabolical creatures who never wanted women to have the choice to bear a child.” But—Rosen points out-- she's wrong. “The three demands made at the first national march in New York City in 1970 included child care, equal pay for equal work and the legal right to have an abortion. Many feminists, moreover, spent years trying to persuade the institutions where they worked that real equality for women required family-friendly policies, including child care.”
Rather than follow the path of Serrin Foster or The Handmaid’s Tale, we should remember our history. Making contraception and abortion illegal will not mean the end of abortion, any more than abstinence education actually results in abstinence.
Earlier this summer, a retired ob-gyn wrote in the New York Times about his experience, in the days before Roe versus Wade, of treating women who had had illegal abortions or tried to self abort. He concludes, “it is important to remember that Roe v. Wade did not mean that abortions could be performed. They have always been done, dating from ancient Greek days. What Roe said was that ending a pregnancy could be carried out by medical personnel, in a medically accepted setting, thus conferring on women, finally, the full rights of first-class citizens — and freeing their doctors to treat them as such.”