No One Wins a (Tug-of) War on Women: From Uteri to Personhood, Why Feminists Must Reframe the Debate

by Katherine Mullen, Jeffrey C. Lunnen and Rachel Piazza, Founders of Feminist Friends

With only 19 days before the 2012 election, the War on Women is intensifying. While Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping statements on women’s health in last night’s presidential debate might suggest a truce, you can be sure that threats to women’s reproductive freedoms are still as prevalent and ludicrous as ever. The War on Women has been raging since the early 2000s when newly-emboldened conservative groups began to attack women’s reproductive rights. Since then, reproductive rights advocates have tirelessly defended these threats to control women’s reproductive capacities, but by doing so, they have unwittingly entered into a dangerous game of tug-of-war. What’s at stake in this reactionary tug-of-war, which locks reproductive rights advocates into a perpetual power struggle with conservatives, is the recognition of women as whole persons.

The consequences of this analogical game go beyond calculated attempts to limit access to abortion and birth control. In this tug-of-war, women’s bodies are dismembered and their humanity diminished. While one side attempts to strip women of the ability to end or prevent a pregnancy and another side works to safeguard that right, the focus is solely on the uterus. This struggle divorces the uterus from the woman and treats the uterus as an independent entity that functions separately from her body and life. In the end, actual living, breathing women become irrelevant and simply viewed as incubators whose purpose and worth is to bear children. Make no mistake, reproductive rights advocates have had no choice but to respond aggressively to the hard-hitting attacks against women’s reproductive health, again and again. The implications of letting the conservative right run with the other end of the rope are too catastrophic to consider inaction as an option. Yesterday’s second presidential debate clearly foreshadowed these implications when Mitt Romney boldly asserted that every woman should have access to contraceptives even though he has made it clear that if elected, he will defund Planned Parenthood, a major provider of healthcare for millions of women. However, the discourse that reproductive rights advocates have engaged in has been shortsighted. Women’s reproductive capacities play a role in their lives, but they do not define them. As whole human beings, women are more than their biological parts. In fact, being a woman does not require “female” anatomy. Reproductive rights advocates often lose sight of the fact that women - who constitute half the world’s population - are incredibly diverse, live their lives in a myriad of ways and experience intersecting oppressions (racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, etc.) in a world that seeks to control and limit their lives. Reproductive health and rights can not be separated from economic security, education, political representation and healthy families and communities. A woman’s “choice” goes beyond the decision to end a pregnancy. Her life choices regarding her fertility and reproductive capabilities are made within, and often determined by the contexts of her life. As women’s rights advocates, we have a responsibility to re-define and broaden the discourse that dismembers women. We must reclaim women as whole persons who struggle not only for access to reproductive health, but as people who fight for economic, political and social rights.     With this simplistic tug-of-war dominating the struggle for reproductive rights, the idea of promoting reproductive freedom by treating women as whole persons may seem too daunting in the daily struggle of pushing back the onslaught of conservative attacks. However, organizations and feminist activists that have been addressing reproductive issues within the context of women’s complex and multifaceted lives give us a model and starting point from which we can begin to redefine the discussion. Feminist Friends recently sat down with the staff of Maternity Care Coalition (MCC), a non-profit organization in Philadelphia that addresses the needs of pregnant and parenting women from a reproductive justice standpoint. Going beyond the single-minded focus on abortion and birth control that dominates mainstream debate, MCC is a model in supporting reproductive rights and health by treating women as whole people. “At MCC, we work toward a more just world for women and girls. By advocating for policies that support the breadth of roles that women fill, we put the reproductive justice philosophy in practice,” said JoAnne Fischer, Executive Director at Maternity Care Coalition. Whether it’s supporting breastfeeding in the workplace or working to end pregnancy discrimination, MCC is actively engaged in cultivating a society that embraces women as full participants in every sphere (public and private). Refusing to engage in the existing tug-of-war discourse surrounding reproductive rights, organizations like Maternity Care Coalition have slipped below the mainstream media’s radar. However, their work is an example of how the reproductive rights discourse needs to be reframed to take into account the complexities of women’s reproductive decisions in the context of their lives. The responsibility to honor women as whole people whose reproductive choices are a part of their multidimensional lives rests on the shoulders of women’s rights advocates. The very people who have (s)heroically defended women’s bodily autonomy must heed the call to step outside the reductive discourse that has defined women as merely body parts and redirect the focus to advocating for women’s personal autonomy in every aspect of life. This effort is not one that is accomplished overnight. Steph Herold, reproductive justice activist and founder of IAmDrTiller.com, confirmed this notion. “Shifting from a "pro-choice" framework into one that celebrates and fights for reproductive justice is something that will take years--we have to be in this for the long haul,” she said. Herold also insisted that “(b)eing honest about where we are and not shying away from (intra-feminist) conversations is what will ultimately build a cohesive movement for reproductive justice that seeks to dismantle all oppression, including racism, transphobia, classism, sexism--all the forces that keep people from having the healthy families they want.” Ms. Herold is correct. This journey toward women’s personhood is a long and arduous one. Taking it together can lead us to a place where we begin to recognize women as whole, living persons. Eventually, focusing only on a person’s reproductive organs will be a preposterous notion. Shifting the discourse to allow for a more complex discussion of women as whole people will begin to change the way we all think about respecting and protecting the sanctity of life. By recognizing women as fully alive, and wholly human, our bodies will cease to be public property. This journey is worth taking, and as feminists, one we must embark on together.     Katherine Mullen is a feminist writer and activist. She earned a Master of Science in Women's and Gender Studies from Towson University and currently blogs at Feminist Conscience. Katherine's work has also been published on Fem2pt0 and Feministing. She is passionate about using her interdisciplinary knowledge of gender studies, international affairs, communications and writing skills to achieve feminist goals.  Jeffrey C. Lunnen is a Research Program Coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. Graduated with honors from Salisbury University on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Jeffrey has undergraduate degrees in Spanish and History--with a focus on women’s rights in the Americas. He also holds a Master of Science in Women’s and Gender Studies from Towson University. Jeffrey is bilingual and has published both English and Spanish. You can find him on Twitter: @elchavodorado Rachel Piazza earned a Master of Science in Women’s & Gender Studies from Towson University. Rachel currently works as a sexual health educator for youth in Delaware. Passionate about bridging feminist academia and activism, Rachel has presented her work at the National Organization for Women's (NOW) National Action Center, the 2011 and 2012 National NOW Conferences, the Mid Atlantic Popular American Culture Conference and Towson University. Rachel's work has also been published in the book “And Finally We Meet: Intersections and Intersectionality Among Academics, Activists and Students.”     Photo credit Gage Skidmore via the Creative Commons License.

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