Living as a woman in this country, it’s hard not to get angry—our contribution to the economy through formal and informal labor is undervalued, our ability to lead and innovate is undercut by persistent stereotypes, and our value is judged by our reproductive capacity, despite widespread institutional and cultural impediments to reproductive health, maternity leave or child support. Girls are socialized from a young age to believe that it’s not appropriate to be angry at the injustices we suffer—rage is not feminine or desirable. This is a part of our indoctrination into a society that willfully disavows our right to be angry. So we learn to tolerate certain injustices, become flexible and understanding of a system that values certain qualities and rights while denying women and girls access to the very mechanisms that would protect those rights. American women have learned to hold our tongues and to pick our battles— but a body can only contain so much anger before it starts to breed resentment of a system disproportionately stacked against women and consistently unwilling to acknowledge inequities and discrimination. Conservative attempts to defund Planned Parenthood, however, have filled me with such frustration that I am forced to break the social norms of female silence to tell you why I am especially angry and why you should be angry too.
I have worked on reproductive health issues for a number of years around the world. As Americans, we have been educated to believe that sexual and reproductive health is just a woman’s issue, one that does not affect any other aspects of a woman’s life or the wider society. This, unfortunately, is a fundamental misapprehension of the role reproduction plays in everyone’s life and the governance of our country as a whole. As a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the South Pacific, I taught sexual and reproductive health to primary and secondary school students, many of whom would never graduate high school because of unplanned pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections. I helped run maternal and child health clinics where cervical cancer was the number one killer of women in the island nation. I distributed condoms in remote villages were HIV/AIDS was beginning to rise, threatening a country already struggling under the burden of other illnesses. When I returned from the Peace Corps, I had friends ask me why I didn’t focus on something “more serious” during my service. Weren’t there other, more pressing issues I could have worked on, they asked. This question sits at the crux of the GOP’s argument to defund Planned Parenthood and the conservative efforts to limit, if not eliminate, a woman’s access to affordable contraception, abortion options, or reproductive health facilities. It stems from a broader cultural conversation that fails to link reproductive health with development, economic prosperity or social stability.
The public discourse has become more conversant with the concept of intersectionality of late, but it seems as though politicians fail to comprehend that reproductive health intersects with every other facet of a person’s life. If children and adolescents are not given comprehensive sexual education, they will not be equipped with the information they need to make healthy decisions about their bodies, nor will they be prepared with the language to negotiate healthy relationships or communicate their boundaries. This all seems very abstract, so let’s consider the life of a young girl who begins having sex in her teens, but doesn’t know about the option of contraceptives for her or her partner. She gets pregnant, but her family is poor and doesn’t have the resources to care for her when she drops out of school. Indeed, a study on teenage pregnancy found that only 40% of teen moms are able to finish high school, and of that number, only 2% graduate from college or university before the age of 30. Unfortunately, due to our current economic climate and the qualifications for employment, that young woman will likely struggle to find a stable job to support herself and her new family, nor will it be easy to access the services she needs for a healthy pregnancy. Due to her lack of institutional or family support, she may have to seek other means to generate income or seek out partners that can financially support her, even if that means tolerating other forms of abuse. She may get involved in criminal activity or violence, risking incarceration in order to provide for her child. Even if she is able to find a job, housing and safely deliver her baby, her economic status may mean that her child could grow up in a rougher neighborhood, receive substandard education, and lack access to the kinds of opportunities needed for healthy development and positive transition into adulthood. This is how cycles of dispossession are perpetuated, how a decision regarding reproductive health bleeds into educational attainment, economic stability, financial independence, and gender-based violence. You take away women and girls’ autonomy over their bodies and you condemn communities to the forms of overt and structural violence that undermine the principle our country was ostensibly founded upon—self-determination.
I saw the same thing in Fiji. A developing country with a limping economy and limited opportunities for employment, the populace was still struggling to free themselves from a legacy of colonialism, dependence on foreign exports and tourism, and reliance on unsustainable foreign aid – and their primary untapped resource was women. In almost all the villages I visited, it was the women who helped to manage money, develop businesses on the side, and advocate for policies that would promote economic independence. Yet these women were rarely given any opportunities to become involved in the formal economy—many became pregnant before the age of 20, had five or more children, and suffered from the complications of early pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections passed on to them by their unfaithful husbands. They didn’t have enough food to feed their families not only because they hadn’t received adequate education about birth spacing and options for contraception, but because women’s place in the home precluded political representation or economic involvement beyond the informal market. A recent article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that an investment in women’s health is also an investment in the economy, particularly in developing countries. The denial of women’s reproductive health rights is a tacit permission to continue the oppression of women, and, by and large, the neglect of the state.
These issues are not unique to the United States, nor are they new concepts in the arena of public health. In South Africa, where I also worked on sexual health and education, girls are five times more likely than boys to become infected with HIV, an epidemic that cannot be uncoupled from the endemic rates of violence against women and girls that still plague the nation. Or we could look to the prison system and consider the recent reports indicating that many young women in jail are victims of child or sexual assault, as well as mothers of children under the age of 18. While running a creative writing workshop in a women’s prison in upstate New York, I encouraged the inmates to share their stories by crafting a personal narrative through poetry or prose. Women my age and younger recounted getting pregnant at fifteen, being thrown out on the streets or abandoned by their families, becoming involved with criminals in the desperate attempt to survive. There are a constellation of other reasons why a family or a young woman may be struggling, but reproductive health is often the keystone that either supports or precipitates the collapse of a woman’s ability to choose the kind of life that she wants to lead.
As Elizabeth Warren stated in the Senate, an attack upon Planned Parenthood is not solely about abortion but rather the belief that a woman has a right to control her own body. In fact, 42% of Planned Parenthood services go towards sexually transmitted infections or diseases, 34% toward contraception, 11% toward women’s health services such as Pap smears and breast exams, and 9% is devoted to cancer screenings. Many young girls, women and their families rely on Planned Parenthood for basic reproductive health services, routine check-ups and contraception which allow them to strategize the best possible future for themselves and their children. Many of these individuals rely upon Medicaid. If you strip away these services they so desperately need, you are reinforcing a system built upon structural violence and eliminating one of the few avenues for empowerment these women still possess. The conservative groups fighting against Planned Parenthood have also refused to move beyond the broken and ineffectual paradigm of abstinence-only education, provide affordable and accessible contraceptives options that would prevent the need for abortive services, or implement policies that would assist mothers or their children. In point of fact, the attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is a systematic attempt to reverse the progress our country has made toward gender equality. The misnomer of pro-life and the pro-life discourse is based on conservative ideology, rather than scientifically grounded fact or considerations of social justice and social welfare.
I am angry because I want to know why. Why are the politicians, elected to represent a constituency of both men and women, blind to the ways that reproductive health cuts across multiple sectors and political considerations? Have they stopped to consider the long term consequences of their actions if a bill to defund Planned Parenthood is passed? What benefits are obtained if more women die from underground, unsafe measures to abort a pregnancy, complications from pregnancy at a young age, sexually transmitted infections, or the forms of cancer that Planned Parenthood often screens for, such as breast and cervical cancer? Are these same politicians going to erect any measures for the women who did not want to become pregnant, yet had no other option, either from ignorance, lack of access to contraceptives, or sexual violence?
The reasoning that has been employed to justify the GOP’s actions is based on short-sighted moral vehemence. Conservatives continues to chip away at the gains women have fought so hard to accomplish. I’m angry because yet again this is being framed as a women’s issue and an ethical affront. We should all care about this debate and take the time to get really, and I mean really, educated on the issues at hand. Because if my anger ever dissipates, I don’t want my rights to disappear too.