The Politics of Abortion

Maria Elena Lucas, an ex-farm worker, poured her heart out into the spiral bound, green notebook. Dating her inscription March 16, 1990, she declared, “I . . . refuse to believe God is a man or that there is only one God. God is not a man and if she is a man, no wonder!”

I have had a similar feeling when dealing with Planned Parenthood and abortion politics in Arizona recently. It’s true, we have a woman governor, Jan Brewer, who has taken leadership in the matter, but the decisions are proposed and formed by a primarily male legislature. That legislature supports a social vision that believes women’s adult ability to envision their own destiny is secondary to events in their reproductive lives. Such an understanding of basic reality supports traditional, male-dominated politics, and it almost seems like the struggles of women for autonomy in the past forty years did not happen.

Arizona recently passed a law that severely restricts abortion after twenty weeks. (See John M. Gionna, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2012.) Then on May 5, 2012, Terry Greene Sterling wrote in the Daily Beast, “Arizona’s governor threw yet another political volley at Planned Parenthood Friday night, inking a law aimed at preventing thousands of women on state Medicaid rolls from accessing family-planning services–including breast exams and pap smears–from organizations that also offer abortions.” According to Sterling, former U.S. surgeon general, Richard Carmona, told the Daily Beast, “This is an example of how politics and overheated rhetoric get in the way of common sense. Planned Parenthood provides a vast array of women’s health care services, often reaching under-served communities where health and economic disparities make access to quality care difficult.”

It’s true that abortion is complex decision, but the serge of laws designed to block women from making that choice seems to reflect a near-panic on the Right about the control of women. As I’ve studied racism and class distinctions over the past forty years, I’ve sometimes wondered if control of sexuality was as deeply fundamental to our culture as I once thought it was. Perhaps class or race is a more basic determinant of oppression, I began to think. But, once again, it feels like I have been slapped across the face by a harsh reality. Social structures consider sexuality, and, consequently, the control of women’s bodies, as absolutely necessary. It is a basic condition upon which our society rests.

It’s not that class and race are not also foundational. For example, look at all the voter registration restrictions being proposed and implemented. But when society is threatened by economic or social turmoil, as it is today, the wagons circle again, protecting basic ideas. One is that women’s dangerous sexuality must be controlled by larger social forces. Why else, the focus on access to contraception or the great fear of gay rights?

I’m old enough to remember when abortion was illegal. Years ago, my friend Lee described her two self-abortions. With contraception unavailable, she did them to prevent two of her eight pregnancies in ten years. Desperate, she jammed glass swivel sticks up her vagina into her uterus. The second attempt nearly killed her. For the sake of women like Lee, we must maintain access to contraception and abortion.

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