Not Deferential Enough: Welcome to Gilead

Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2012 in Opinion

Not Deferential Enough: Welcome to Gilead

Offred, the Handmaid in Margaret Atwood's 1985 Tale.

by Gina Hamilton

About 15 years ago, I read a book by Margaret Atwood called "The Handmaid's Tale," a dystopian near-future story in which women have been completely subjugated by a totalitarian theocracy. When I read it, I was still feeling pretty chipper about the future, and about women's rights, even though at the time Atwood wrote the book in 1985, the Equal Rights Amendment had only recently been shot down by the states, whose main arguments, as I recall, were that women and men would have to use the same toilets and that gay marriage would become legal.

In the book, women are relegated to being sexual objects or servants. They have no other function. In an era of declining births, the handmaids are used to provide offspring for the higher-echelon wives of the commanders of the realm.

Since the recent commencement of the war on women, I've been thinking about the book a lot.

It's not a shock that Republicans are anti-abortion, nor is it a surprise that they pander to the religious right. However, even anti-abortion women tend to support contraception (contraception being one of the main ways abortion is avoided). In February of 2011, Republicans pushed a rogue measure to cut off all funding from Planned Parenthood, even though less than 3 percent of services provided by Planned Parenthood are abortion-related, and none of those abortions (except for cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother) are paid for by federal dollars, thanks to the Hyde Amendment from the 1980s. It didn't work. But a year later, a Republican operative who worked at the Susan G. Komen breast-cancer foundation pushed for that organization to cut its funding to Planned Parenthood for breast-cancer screenings. Uproar from women ... and a lot of men ... was swift and furious, and Komen reversed the decision. The woman who pushed for the change left the organization. Funding is still very weak at Komen.

Meanwhile, during the Republican presidential primary campaign, candidate Rick Santorum, thought in February to be DOA, began surging in the polls among conservatives. He is anti-abortion and anti-contraception. He just won the Louisiana primary. 

Republicans in Virginia proposed a law that would require women seeking abortions, even those resulting from rape or incest, to first submit to mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasounds — a further invasion of their bodies. In Pennsylvania, the governor said about his mandatory ultrasound law that women could just "close their eyes" if they didn't want to see the ultrasound images. Twenty states have some kind of ultrasound requirement, and more are on the way.

Meanwhile, Republicans in Texas pushed through a law defunding Planned Parenthood clinics in the state, cutting off at least 60,000 low-income women from their health-care providers. 

A bill that usually passes without any fanfare at all, the extension of the Violence Against Women Act, now faces fierce opposition from conservatives in the Senate. The bill now has 60 co-sponsors, enough to overcome a filibuster if it should come to that. The difficulty this time is that gay and lesbian victims were included, and more funding was being extended to tribal courts, where domestic violence is a serious issue. Republicans acknowledge that gays and lesbians should have equal rights under the law, they just don't understand why Democrats want to make it law. Republicans in Georgia want to stop calling victims of rape, stalking, and domestic violence "victims," although burglary victims would still be called victims. Instead, these women would now be called "accusers."

Last January, Republicans tried ... and failed ... to have the term "forcible" added to the definition of rape in the types of abortions the Hyde Amendment would pay for. That would have meant that a 13-year-old girl impregnated by a 50-year-old man, if she "consented" to sex, could not have an abortion paid for by Medicaid. 

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the state Senate had on the docket a bill that would have allowed any employer to deny any employee the right to use insurance to purchase contraception, unless the woman could prove that she was using it for non-contraceptual reasons, such as endometriosis or ovarian cysts. The same bill would have allowed a religious institution to fire an employee for using birth control that she paid for with her own money. It was pulled from the docket.

In South Dakota, Republicans proposed a bill that could make it legal to murder a doctor who provides abortion services. Since 1993, eight doctors have been assassinated at the hands of anti-abortion extremists, and another 17 have been the victims of murder attempts. Some of the perpetrators of those crimes have tried to use the justifiable homicide defense at their trials.

Meanwhile, in Maine, our own Rep. Lance Harvell, R-Farmington, made the case that insurance companies shouldn't have to pay for Pap smears because it's somehow unfair to young men who don't need them (but who are far more likely to require a broken bone set, or a nose fixed after a barroom brawl than women). He even tried to defend this point of view in the Sun Journal after hearing about it from many, many constituents and other Mainers who were absolutely appalled by his insensitivity. Here, on YouTube, is Harvell's original discussion on the State House floor.

So it was against this Gilead-like backdrop that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius issued statements on how the contraception mandate would be applied to religiously based institutions with a primarily public purpose, such as universities, schools and hospitals. (Twenty-eight states already have similar regulations, including Maine, and there has been no uproar from conservatives, nor even, it might be added, the bishops who have to pay for them.) However, this brought a howl of protest from Republicans who saw it as a political opportunity to criticize health-care reform and show that President Obama is opposed to "religious freedom."

Obama quickly made a deal in which such organizations would not have to pay for reproductive health care, but the insurance companies would. That made no difference to the Republicans. What had been a basic equal protection question for women who work for Catholic universities has now become a First Amendment issue.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, a legislator compares women to farm animals and says that even if their fetus has died in utero, they should still have to undergo labor and delivery. Maybe he needs the milk? That's why we allow female cows to undergo this, rather than to remove the fetus that has died. 

Our society is beginning to look a lot like Atwood's nightmare. The lines between women in Third World nations and women in the U.S. are becoming a lot less clear today.  Women need to unite and let these clowns know that we will never, ever be forced back into the Dark Ages.

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