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Public Theology: State Rape and the Right's Escalating War on Women
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State Rape and the Right's Escalating War on Women
Catholic bishops and religious right have gone berzerk in their attacks on birth control and demands for invasive medical procedures.

By Heather Parton

Editor's Note: The political cartoon on this page by George Hall depicts a hearing of the House Oversight Committee on February 16, 2012, which did not allow women to testify on the claim that the hearing was about religious freedom not birth control. I have written about this hearing in this article. What follows is a segment of a radio interview with Heather Parton by Joshua Holland of Alternet. Parton is a writer of a popular political blog under the name of "Digby". This interview demonstrates how the recent focus on "religious freedom" by Catholic bishops and the religious right is being received among those involved in political commentary. It is being received as a "war on women" which is exactly what it is in my own view, it is part of the backlash movement against the successes of the women's liberation movement. Primary Protestant leaders must begin to stand up much more strongly against this backlash politics now even being led by Catholic bishops who are degrading the witness of the church in our time.

Notice the reference to "state rape" which concerns draconian laws being considered in several states including Virginia to force women to undergo an invasive medical procedure before having an abortion. Such laws in my mind are a travesty and should be resisted by all people of faith and people of good will.

JH: Let's talk about this incredibly insane lurch towards the culture wars. Do you remember 15 minutes ago when the dominant narrative from the political press was that social issues were on the back burner?

HP: Oh, yes. Our religious right was dead, no one would ever pay attention to them again, we had, you know -- this was completely put behind us. Huzzah, huzzah huzzah! I of course knew that that was not true, it's just if you follow the right wing for any length of time you understand that, for all of their faults and all of their flaws, lack of resiliency is not one of them. They are always prepared to jump in, when they see an opportunity, and of course the health care bill in general has given them this opening, although it's part of a much broader strategy that's been coming about since the early days of the Obama administration.

They've gotten together with this idea of trying to push the religious liberty concept through that application of conscious clauses. In various laws and bills that have been presented pretty regularly since 2009. And you know, this is a very smart, long term strategy to try and use the legislative arm of the government to create openings for social conservatives and I would suspect along the road there will be economic conservatives to join this as well in finding ways for individuals and institutions to object to, you know, specific ways that the federal government wants to spend its money.

JH: But you know, it seems to me that there were a couple of polls out this week, the PPP poll and the Washington Post poll both explained a little bit of the accommodation that president Obama came to with the catholic bishops last week and those polls found overwhelming support for the agreement. And then, another poll by CNN/ Gallop did not explain the provisions that the Obama administration had stuck in there, and they found more of a split. So is this going to be a battle of who had the best megaphone, who best can frame this issue? Whether it's religious liberty, or about access to contraceptives?

HP: Well I think that's the battle line that's been drawn, I don't know who's going to be successful, but I do think that one thing the religious right understands, and the social conservatives in general understand is that these are not issues that people want to be talking about all the time and they're perfectly willing to do it, they are willing to be out there talking about abortion and birth control, and vaginal ultrasounds, and all that other stuff, day in and day out, and they're willing to push it to the absolute limit, and I think the real question is whether or not the liberals --Democrats, specifically -- are going to be willing to fight the battle. I see it as ugly trench warfare.

I don't know, it should be a winning issue for liberals. Obviously, most people use birth control, it hasn't been even slightly controversial up until about a week ago. No one would have thought this could be an issue that would even be, you know, enjoined by anyone, it's just, it's settled, it's been settled, there's just nothing to talk about. But how far, you know, they've managed to put this on the top of the agenda, and will the democrats and the liberals be willing to fight this out now that it's up there? And that's the part I don't know, because I've just found over the years that once you get into this stuff people start to get very tired of it very quickly. They don't want to talk about this. It's uncomfortable, you know. It's one of those discussions that people just don't want to have over the dinner table over and over again.

JH: I think that there is a sense, certainly among democrats, that they're looking at these polls and they see it as a winning issue and you know, one of the things that strikes me is that we've both been observing the right for a long time and usually they have such good message discipline. And here they are, they're trying explicitly to make this about religious liberty, they insist that it's not about contraception, and then they come out and talk about the evils of contraception. I mean, this week we had Foster Friess, Rick Santorum's eccentric billionaire sugar daddy talking about putting a tablet of aspirin between your knees, because the problem is of course, slutty women.

Do men have anything to do with the procreative process?

HP: Not that I know of, but the last I heard, you know, I keep hearing it put this way: 'When a woman gets herself pregnant, she has to blah blah blah.' *laughs* Yeah, she did that to herself.

JH: Yeah, at the same time we have this rep, this nutty rep in New Hampshire saying that the pill causes prostate cancer. Rick Santorum himself said that contraception harms women, and James Poulos of course this week wrote for the daily column titled "What Are Women For". So on one hand they're saying that this is absolutely not about contraception, but they just can't seem to refrain from slut shaming when it comes down to their communications.

HP: Well, I think that is what they're doing and I think that you know, we know that this is operating on two levels. I mean you have this sort of long term strategy to use religious liberty as a way to basically dismantle the welfare state. That's one thing. And then on the other side, you also do have the social conservatives, who also truly do believe in slut shaming, I mean that's just their whole point. So, you know, they're talking on two different levels.

I think if you look at guys like Rick Santorum obviously he's in the midst of a hard-fought primary campaign, where he is specifically, you know, targeting these social conservatives, that's his base, and so he's going to speak to that sort of thing in a much more obvious manner, but I think that the idea is- and I have this sort of theory about how these things work- you start talking about things and it sounds very jarring and strange to your ears. This one, certainly I think, has hit people with "huh? what", you know, remember Mitt Romney in the debate up in New Hampshire -- they asked him about it and clearly he was not informed. I do not believe that that was some general election strategy on his part. I just don't think he knew that this thing was brewing. And he's like, "what are you talking about?"

JH: Right. "Why are you asking about birth control?"

HP: "Huh?" You know, and he was right, he was reflecting what I think the vast majority of Americans were doing at that moment going "where's that coming from?" Well, now we know where it's coming from, and over time, this stuff starts to seem more normal, and in a weird, sort of counterintuitive way, by saying these things and sort of rushing into the public dialogue -- whether it's contraception, religious liberty, the whole thing -- what they do is they churn up this sense that this is controversial, and once you get this termed as controversial, that's when you can start seeing all the lower levels start to go to work, which is at the state level. You know, who knows what they're going to do with contraception.

I wouldn't be surprised over the next few years to see contraception challenged in the same way that abortion has been challenged. We've already seen it a little bit with the pharmacist doing these conscious exceptions. Up to now, they've only done it with the emergency contraception, and now we may begin to see them saying, "well I just don't believe in contraception altogether", and start to see some battle lines form and this is how they sort of get momentum on this stuff.

Even though we think it's settled-and to some degree public opinion may very well be settled on this and not move at all-the numbers on abortion have been remarkably steady over the years, since 1973, and yet, when you look at the legal status of abortion it's changed rather dramatically. Sure it's still ostensibly legal, but in some places it's nearly impossible to actually obtain it. So it sort of happens below the radar. We're all going "well wait a minute, this is legal, it's contraception, we all need it" and for those people who can afford it, they'll be able to go get it. That's how these things tend to work, and it's not an inexpensive thing, and I think probably the first step will be to try to get this taken out of insurance policies, and we may very well see that happening across the country.

JH: It's important to know that this is about assaulting the healthcare reform, that rather tepid healthcare reform that we've got, and I would just note that this is exactly the same as that mandate signed into law by Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee and by a number of other conservative governors at the state level. I wrote a piece this week at, the mothership, about how the right had come up with what was, ostensibly, a conspiracy theory about how the costs would ultimately be passed onto religious organizations through higher premiums. Of course, birth control is an incredibly cost-efficient preventive medicine, and I cited studies that show that it costs 15-17% more to insure a population without offering them free birth control, so there is no cost incur. This is absolutely a legitimate thing, where the insurance companies will save money, and nobody has to pick up the tab.

Let me switch tacts a little bit, I don't even own a vagina, and yet I am so offended by this law that was passed in VA this week. There were two laws. There was a personhood beginning at conception law, but the other one of these laws is just unbelievable, maybe if you have small children around, maybe you should have them go play in another room. I want to talk about what the media is kind of sterilizing as forcing women to have an ultrasound, which I think conjures images of jelly on the belly, it's a noninvasive procedure. What is it that we're actually talking about here, Heather?

HP: Well, what they did in Virginia this week, and previously they passed this bill in Texas as well, and it's been up for a vote in several other states. And what it's basically saying is that every woman must have an ultrasound done, if she's pregnant and seeking an abortion, and it has to be narrated in a particular way by the doctor, and they must be forced to see-well, they're allowed to decline, but they have to be offered a picture of the fetus in the womb before they are allowed to exercise their constitutional right to abortion.

Now in this case, most women get abortions very early on, in the first trimester, which is allegedly what we're supposed to be wanting to happen, and in that case, these normal ultrasounds, jelly on the belly, where you see the little baby in there, they're not like that in the first three months. They're very, very tiny, and most women don't even have these, even when they're going to have the baby, they don't have ultrasounds done that early. The only way that you can get any kind of a picture is to actually take a probe, with the ultrasound on it, and insert it deeply into the vagina. This is a very, very invasive procedure, and it's not pleasant. As one who does own a vagina, I happen to have had one of those, and it's very, very intrusive and invasive procedure.

JH: One woman had described it as the worst thing that she had ever undergone at the doctor's office.

HP: It's really not fun. And if it's medically necessary to have this procedure done, women are willing to undergo it, you know, like you would have a colonoscopy. If it's just necessary to do this thing, then you'll do it. In this case, there is no necessity whatsoever, for anyone, in the first trimester to have an ultrasound done before they have an abortion. Unless there's some medical problem, this would never happen. So they're forcing women to undergo this invasive, unpleasant, often painful procedure, and the reaction of an unbelievable number of people is to say, "Well, she got pregnant, didn't she? It's not like they're virgins or anything."

JH: This is the amazing thing. This is unbelievably stunning. They're actually saying that because you've had sex, then somehow the state, essentially raping you- Dahlia Lithwick, legal reporter for Slate, she said that the facts of this, in any other context would be rape.

HP: Absolutely. I mean, I've been calling it state-rape. It's absolutely coercive and the sole purpose of it is to inflict an invasive procedure on women to dissuade them from doing something they are perfectly entitled to do. And they're also setting nurses and doctors up as accomplices to the state, enforcing them to do it, against their medical judgement as well. There are some other things that go along with this. Apparently in Virginia, they put in a law that it must be noted in your medical file if you declined to view the ultrasound.

JH: So you have to have this procedure, even if you don't end up viewing it, you have to undergo this rape-by-state.

HP: That's right. And this is going to be required of any woman seeking an abortion. Now there's no exception for rape or incest, so some poor little girl, who was raped by her uncle undergoes this as well -- not that that makes it any different, no one's innocent or guilty in this situation -- but that does seem particularly awful to me. There was a big argument in the Virginia Assembly over this, and they had a lot of firey back-and-forths on it, and the end result with the right-wingers who passed this thing was that they said "If you don't want to have this done, don't have an abortion."

JH: Yeah, and just as rape is not about sex, this is about control and punishment. We shouldn't be too surprised that a poll out this week found that there had been an 18 point shift from Romney to Obama in the last three months among young married women. Heather, I want to thank you so much."

This story appeared at Alternet 2012 All rights reserved.

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Date Added: 2/21/2012 Date Revised: 2/21/2012 12:59:54 PM

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