In his comments to the Senate during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, Dale Bumpers noted that “H.L. Mencken said one time, ‘When you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about money,’ it’s about money.’ And when you hear somebody say, ‘This is not about sex,’ it’s about sex.” The recent controversy over insurance coverage for contraception has vividly made the point that feminists have argued for years. The culture wars over reproductive rights never have been primarily about “fetal person-hood,” the right to life, or now, religious freedom: they have always been about the control of women’s bodies and sexuality.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when numerous states, and most western countries passed and more aggressively enforced laws against birth control and abortion, male legislators felt no need to pretend these laws were about anything other than controlling women’s sexuality, or harnessing their wombs in the service of the state.
The Comstock Act of 1873 took the issue to the federal level, and defined any information about contraception or abortion as “obscene” and “illicit”—it was this law that Margaret Sanger put to the test by disseminating information on birth control. In1920, French legislators criminalized birth control, prohibited all distribution, advertisement, and promotion of female contraceptives, and stiffened penalties for abortion. The French pro-natalist campaign had emerged in the wake of France’s defeat in the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war. Consequently, politicians linked the issue of birth control with those of morality, national strength, economic growth, and protection of the family.
Feminists such as Nelly Roussel, who tried to decouple sexuality from maternity, could not persuade the public that “voluntary motherhood” was preferable to coerced motherhood. Historian Elinor Accampo quotes a conservative newspaper editor who denounced Roussel in tones reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh’s recent attack on Sandra Fluke, writing that “these sorts of viragos, unsexed women who saturate literature and modern politics . . . mount their pens like they would mount a broom to go to a midnight orgy. Sterile or scorned, they avenge their disgrace by insulting Nature.”
In the American context, until Roe vs. Wade, restrictions on both birth control and abortion were most often linked to arguments about the selfishness of women, the danger of rewarding the wages of sin, eugenics, and the need to control female sexuality. The changes in women’s status that both led to and resulted from greater reproductive freedom made it more difficult for opponents of reproductive rights to explicitly continue this line of attack. Hence a new focus in 1970s and 1980s on the fetus as an innocent being, separate from the woman carrying it.
Pro-life activists also concentrated on the sexually active teenage girl, enacting new laws that would enhance parental control over their daughters’ sexual behavior. Institutions affiliated with the Catholic and other churches fought for “conscience clauses” that permit them to deny reproductive services they find offensive, while pharmacy employees claimed the right to refuse to sell items that violate their beliefs. However, as both Rosalind Petchesky and Rickie Solinger have made clear, ideas about how “proper women” should behave, both sexually and as mothers, still shape reproductive politics in the United States. Access to contraception and abortion represent the “emancipated woman,” more focused on her education and work than on family and child rearing. Rick Santorum made this connection explicit in recent comments, although he has tried to draw back from its implications in the face of outrage from even conservative women.
In recent years, the political right has tried to separate the issues of abortion and contraception, condemning abortion loudly while at the same time working quietly to make access to birth control more difficult and expensive. At the same time, in their rhetoric, they have tried to conflate birth control and abortion in the public’s mind—for example, in the case of Plan B. The recent insurance controversy has linked those two issues, but not to the advantage of pro-life and anti-contraception forces. Suddenly, women have been forced to confront the fact that the right even to birth control, which they considered long settled, is more fragile than they realized.
Since many continue to oppose a sexually active woman’s right to choose whether she becomes or remains pregnant, this debate will continue. But those who wish to make the case against reproductive rights should not be allowed to portray themselves simply as defenders of religious freedom or person-hood, or as desirous of giving women more information, as in the case of Virginia’s recently passed and medically suspect ultrasound law. They should publicly acknowledge that they believe that church and state have more compelling rights over a woman’s body then she does herself, and that the state has the right to endanger a woman’s health in the interest of controlling her sexual behavior. I’m not sure that’s a case that most legislators would care to make openly.