Zoe Barnes: At best it’s misguided paternalism, and at worst it’s misogyny trying to disguise itself as misguided paternalism

MITT Romney, the Republican Party’s nominee for this year’s upcoming US Presidential elections, appears to be under the disturbing delusion that he and his party are “extraordinarily pro-woman”. Coming from a man whose political résumé includes such gems as vetoing a 2005 bill that would require hospitals to provide rape victims with emergency contraception, and vowing to defund family planning organisations such as Planned Parenthood and Title X, both of which offer life-saving screenings for breast and ovarian cancer to low-income families, I’m almost afraid to hear what policies he would consider to be ‘anti-woman’.

It takes only a brief exploration into the Republican Party’s key policies in the run-up to the 2012 US presidential elections to see that any members of the American electorate that have even the slightest empathy for gender equality and a woman’s right to autonomy over her own body should do everything in their power to prevent the election of a party that vocally and actively support the elimination of such choices available to US women.

To offer a brief summary, the current key issues in the debate over reproductive rights in the US centre around proposed restrictions to insurance coverage of birth control, such as the oral contraceptive pill, defunding of family planning organisations such as Planned Parenthood, mentioned above, and most significantly the increased limitations on when, where and how a woman can choose to terminate an unwanted or life-threatening pregnancy. Whilst American politicians and citizens alike are known for strongly defending their civil rights as detailed in the US Declaration of Independence, it is with alarming ease that US politicians will fight with even greater fervour to deny the female electorate the basic right to have autonomy over their bodies and their lives.

I steadfastly do not support such proposed elimination of choices available to women and their partners and families concerning their sexual health and personal family-planning choices. Obviously as with any prescription or medical procedure I believe that there is need for regulation. The patient should be made well aware by a medical professional of any potential risks or alternatives, but it should be done so objectively; it is, after all, not the doctor who will be taking the morning-after pill or undergoing a termination. Ultimately, it should be up to the woman to assess her options and choose the one that will benefit her the most. In this debate there are many that argue against contraception and abortion on religious or moral grounds. That’s fine; nobody is forcing you to do something that you do not want to do, but kindly extend the same courtesy to those who think differently.

To demonstrate the severity of these issues, which are often brushed aside as detracting from key divisive concerns such as the economy or foreign policy, this summer a pregnant teenager in the Dominican Republic was denied access to chemotherapy on the grounds that it could harm her nine-week-old foetus. She herself subsequently died due to lack of treatment. With vocal demands from many within the Republican Party to put into place even greater restrictions upon the provision of abortions in the US, it is not outside the realms of possibility that we may see an increase in similar cases in the near future for American women. This is an issue in which lives are literally at stake.

It is therefore worrying that those dictating the direction of such policies appear not to have made an effort to fully educate themselves on the matter. Earlier in September an interviewer posed an Ohio Republican legislator, Jim Buchy, with the question, “What do you think makes a woman want to have an abortion?” Clearly taken aback by the question, Buchy, a fervent proponent of banning abortion even in the case of rape or incest, finally admitted that “it’s a question I have never thought about.” This highlights one of the issues that most concerns me in this debate; an overwhelming majority of those with a deciding vote in policies centred around women’s autonomy over their own bodies are middle-aged, middle-class, male politicians.

Whilst men can peripherally suffer from the implications of restricted access to birth control and abortions, through the economic burden of a partner’s unexpected pregnancy, for example, it is first and foremost women who will be hit the hardest by such strict limitations to their reproductive rights. For example, it is estimated that around 80% of US women have used the contraceptive pill at some point in their life, whether to decide on their own terms when they want to start a family, or to treat specific disorders such as Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. The pills are taken daily and, for optimum effectiveness, continuously. Without comprehensive insurance coverage this cost quickly adds up, and due to basic biological differences it is a cost of which women bear the brunt if they want to retain control over their bodies and their lives.

Overall, these policies punish women for daring to be sexually active, a claim that Wisconsin politician and legislator, Daniel LeMahieu, so kindly validates. In 2005 LeMahieu was horrified when he saw that US colleges were providing students with contraception. Instead of applauding students for taking responsibility for their own sexual health, he instead denounced such institutions for “giving young college women the tools for having promiscuous sexual relations.” This statement, particularly the lack of any mention of young men engaging in “promiscuous sexual relations”, is incredibly telling of the enduring attitude of the Republican Party towards women and sex; they don’t want them doing it, they certainly don’t want them enjoying it, and ideally if they insist on doing it then fingers crossed they should, according to the (thankfully) former State Representative Cynthia Davis, “pay the price” by incubating a foetus for nine, long months.

The crux of all the arguments for restricting reproductive rights, not only the US but across the world, is control. These politicians in favour of restricting reproductive rights are basically looking to control women’s access to the wonders of modern science that allow them to decide when, how, and importantly if they want to have children and, as a result, a plethora of other decisions they can make about their lifestyle, ranging from decisions about their careers to choices about their sexuality. At best it’s misguided paternalism, and at worst it’s misogyny trying to disguise itself as misguided paternalism. Whatever it is, it is under no circumstances something that even comes close to deserving the label of being “extraordinarily pro-woman.”