Friday, February 17, 2012

What's 'Freedom of Conscience' Got To Do With It?

There is heated controversy surrounding the Obama mandate for employers to provide no-copay birth control under the Affordable Care Act. Unsurprisingly, the mandate has caused an uproar among religious conservatives, who insist that forcing all employers, especially those of religious organizations, to provide contraception is a violation of “freedom of conscience.” Despite a compromise to address the issue, wherein the burden of conscience would shift to insurance companies rather than employers, conservatives remain firm in their opposition.  They've even gone so far as to organize a House forum entitled “Lines Crossed: Separation of Church and State. Has the Obama Administration Trampled on Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Conscience?” (I couldn't make this up, if I tried).  

Sadly, resistance to contraception access is part of a long historical trend.  While this remains constant, I am continually fascinated by the changes in argumentation for and against reproductive justice in this country.  Mostly, I have studied these rhetorical shifts in terms of abortion (if you would like a copy of my widely-read BA thesis, address inquiries at the bottom), but there is distinct overlap with the discourse around birth control, as well.

In the case of abortion, the left wing went through several incarnations of its current argument. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was argued that abortion, along with all other reproductive health measures, was a part of one's political freedom-- -that without the ability to determine when and under what circumstances one would have children, one could not exercise their own self-determination. This changed with Roe v. Wade, which encased a woman's right to abortion within the Right to Privacy under the 14th Amendment. In other words, it said that what people do in homes and doctor's offices is their own g-d business! Beginning with Roe and proceeding into the Reagan-era, the left-wing co-opted neo-liberal discourse, and the fight for “reproductive freedom” (which evoked a sense of woman's political activity and agency) became the “right to choose.”

This was a pretty snappy catchphrase. So snappy, that the right wing quickly developed it's own soundbite: “the right to life.” What was before a fetus, became the dawn of human life. Abortion was no longer a procedure; suddenly it was murder (as a side note, little was said by pro-lifers of a woman's “right to life,” but it must have been an oversight). The “right to life” rhetoric was also applied to birth control. The natural consequence of sex, it was argued, was human life. To prevent human life from being formed was to stand in the way of mother nature, God, the universe, etc., etc.

In the early 1990s, many pro-lifers became increasingly extreme in their protests against abortion clinics. What started with pictures of aborted fetuses, quickly evolved into mail-bombs, violence against doctors, and harassment of women seeking services. Leadership in the pro-life movement realized this was not exactly a popular public image, and, therefore, switched its rhetoric once again. Co-opting pro-choice language (noticing a pattern yet?), the new talking point was women's well-being. The woman-friendly argument framed abortion as a procedure which mentally and physically debilitated women for the rest of their lives.

The pro-choice movement also took a softer approach, along with most women's rights activists who were suffering from negative public image. Because the idea of “women's rights” was evoking a scary stereotype of a baby-hating, loveless femi-nazi, the decision was made to instead promote a woman's physical well-being as a non-controversial shift. Consequently, the language of women's rights was cast aside for that of women's health. The trend continues today: Arguments surrounding abortion, birth control, and even domestic violence now are all enveloped in the language of women's health, rather than reproductive freedom or justice.

On the anti-reproductive-health front, there is another shift: the argument for freedom of conscience, as witnessed in the current contraception-mandate frenzy. Women have again been left out of the equation, as the rights of employers and companies have come to the forefront.

In spite of the apocalyptic tone the media is drumming up, I personally feel (from a pro-reproductive-justice standpoint) that this this shift is a positive sign. Think of this: the argument is not that women should not be able to make decisions regarding their bodies, it is not that employers should not have to provide healthcare, it is not that we need to look out for the potential of unborn children. Today, these arguments would never work because they would be too unpopular-- a fact which shows the enormous progress of women in the last 20 years! The opposition's rhetorical shift, therefore, shows an implicit acknowledgement that women have a right to reproductive self-determination, simply because it does not attack that premise in its argument against contraception coverage.

There is obviously much still to be done for reproductive justice. The fact that any argument is made against providing birth control shows that there are many to whom the argument appeals, and that the audience is considered politically relevant.. However, to me, the fact that contraception is garnering so much public attention seems like a red herring: a politically weak attempt by certain conservatives to evoke the antiquated “culture wars” in the hopes of gaining a few votes and distracting the public eye from more immediate concerns. Hopefully, the public sees past this ruse and continues to take a stand for women's freedom.

1 comment:

  1. I like your point that the right to women's self-determination not being part of the debate means that it's more accepted. I still have many fears stemming from this controversy, but you have put a positive spin on it.