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Mass outrage vs. rightwing attacks

Published Mar 14, 2012 10:18 PM

With the war on women in full swing, women are fighting mad and fighting back. Threats to health care and reproductive rights, especially safe, legal abortion and birth control, and reactionary attitudes toward women have been met with strong anger and resistance by women and male allies across the United States.

On March 1, the start of Women’s History Month, the Democratic-majority U.S. Senate by a 51-48 vote narrowly rejected the so-called “Respect for Rights of Conscience Act,” which would have allowed any employer or insurance plan, with or without religious affiliation, to refuse coverage for any health care service or provision they object to on the basis of “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri introduced this as an amendment to the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the so-called national health care plan) and tacked it on to a transportation bill this year.

This came on the heels of February filled with congressional debate and public commentary about women’s right to contraceptives in the health plan. Anti-woman, reactionary forces went head to head with women defending their right to basic health care, reproductive health care and birth control.

President Barack Obama had announced on Jan. 20 that all religious-affiliated institutions that serve the general population and receive federal and state funding must provide free birth control coverage as part of preventive health care in all employee health care plans. The all-male U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops went on a rampage, denouncing the measure as an attack on “religious freedom.” They were soon joined by Republican presidential candidates, Christian and Jewish fundamentalists, reactionary politicians in Congress and other right-wing elements like Tea Party members.

This was a reactionary attack on working women’s right to contraception coverage in their employer-provided health care plans and to all women’s rights and autonomy.

On Feb. 10, the president caved in with a “compromise.” He announced that the thousands of religious-affiliated schools, universities, hospitals, long-term health care facilities and charities affected by the health care plan would not be required to provide such coverage; instead, women working for these employers could obtain birth control directly through their insurance companies.

But even this “compromise” was not enough for the male-dominated Catholic Church and other reactionaries, who want to control and set back women and women’s rights.

Millions of people were outraged by the spectacle of a Feb. 16 hearing convened by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on the new regulation’s effect on women’s health. The only woman scheduled to testify was prevented from speaking. Only male religious figures opposed to birth control coverage were allowed to testify. Two women representatives walked out of the proceedings, and photographs of the all-male panel went viral on the Internet, television and print media.

Democrats later arranged for the ejected witness, Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, to testify on Feb. 23 before the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee. After her testimony, in a much-publicized frenzy, reactionary bigot Rush Limbaugh called Fluke a “prostitute” and “slut” on his national radio show and made other inflammatory, misogynistic comments about women’s sexuality and contraception.

Outrage was swift. A mass movement condemning Limbaugh and his anti-woman bigotry arose. His corporate sponsors were inundated with demands from women and men that they withdraw from Limbaugh’s show or face the economic consequences. As of March 11, some 50 sponsors had pulled their ads, and two stations had dropped Limbaugh’s show, despite his “apology” to Fluke — in which he claimed to have used the wrong words to describe her.

Attacks on right to abortion escalate in states

The right-wing offensive against birth control and abortion rights rages on in many states. Planned Parenthood, because 3 percent of its services are abortions, has been under attack not just on a national level, but in many states as well. Planned Parenthood is the only source of medical care for millions of low-income women around the U.S.

In Texas, for instance, a new law will take effect on March 14 that defunds Planned Parenthood clinics. That state has also seen closure of “more than a dozen facilities that provided health care to poor women” due to budget cuts. (Associated Press, March 11) These medical facilities provided contraceptives as well as gynecological cancer screenings and other vital health care services for low-income women.

A new terror tactic of the right-wing in many states is forcing women to view unnecessary ultrasounds of the fetus prior to being allowed to have an abortion. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed such a bill into law on March 7. However, it had been amended to allow a woman to refuse a “transvaginal” ultrasound. This invasive procedure is widely condemned and has been called “state-mandated rape” if forced on a woman. When 1,000 people rallied March 3 at the state capitol in Richmond to protest the legislation, they were met by police in full riot gear, who arrested 31 people at what was a peaceful demonstration.

In Georgia, the time when access to abortion is allowed has been reduced from 26 weeks of gestation to 20 weeks. On March 7, the state Senate approved two other bills curtailing reproductive rights. One bans abortion coverage for state workers under their health care insurance, and another prevents workers at private religious institutions from demanding insurance payments for birth control, thus invalidating the compromise announced by President Obama. All eight of Georgia’s Democratic women senators walked out in protest as the bills passed.

Loretta Ross, national coordinator of the SisterSong Reproductive Justice Collective, stated:

“[I]n Georgia, we’re feeling the blows of this war on women that’s sweeping across the country. And the women legislators who walked out last night in protest really stood up for us. And there were some men in the legislature who stood up for us, too. But to no avail, because the bills passed, and now we have to fight, fight, fight.” (democracynow.org, March 8)

A march on the Georgia state Capitol has been called for March 12 “to protest the silencing of women and this war on women. We’re calling it ‘Walk in Our Shoes,’ because they are not really paying attention to the situation that women are actually enduring,” said Ross.

Working-class, poor women, women of color and women from oppressed nationalities have been singled out for attack by the right-wing and are now participating in a growing fightback demanding reproductive and health care justice for all.

In this presidential election year, the Democratic Party has confirmed that it is campaigning to win women’s votes — which should not be difficult, given the anti-woman record of the Republicans.

However, the Democrats were responsible for one of the meanest attacks on poor women in recent times: so-called welfare reform, initiated under Bill Clinton, which has forced almost 2 million women and their children into “extreme poverty” — defined as trying to survive on less than $2 a day. (See WW editorial this issue.)

The struggle must stay in the streets and address the crimes of capitalism — homelessness, unemployment and racism — which must be eradicated for there to be real reproductive freedom and justice for all women.