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Birth Control Battleground: Mississippi Rejects Controversial Personhood Initiative

Yesterday, Mississippi voters rejected Initiative 26, a plan which would have made illegal certain forms of birth control, such as the Plan B pill and in vitro fertilization. Unfortunately, this amendment was just one spoke in a national pattern of attacks on women’s personal freedoms. It is time for Republican representatives to refocus their efforts and political capital on issues of actual value to their constituency: Unemployment (38% say that this is an important issue), the economy (33%), the budget deficit (22%), and government (12%). By focusing on social issues like abortion, these representatives sidestep the politically challenging, pressing issues while appealing to a shrinking hardline base.

Initiative (or state constitutional amendment) 26 would have granted fertilized eggs full legal rights while effectively stripping the woman of her own. The proposal made no exceptions for incest, rape, or health risks to the mother. It also illegalized contraceptives effective after fertilization, such the Plan B pill, as well as stem cell research which promises substantial health advancements for the already living

Even though a vast majority of Americans from all demographics support contraception, Mississippi’s proposed amendment does not represent the work of a couple of sidelined extremists. The state of Mississippi already requires that women undergo mandatory counseling and a 24-hour wait period before terminating a pregnancy. Additionally, similar personhood measures have been raised in other states, and just last week Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsed the amendment.

These attacks are nothing new. The battle over women’s bodies is consistently “drenched” in the politics and religion of a majority white, male, and affluent Republican leadership desperately courting extreme voters at the expense of the median. However, this year has been particularly worrisome for women’s advocates. According to Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 2011 witnessed the most aggressive legislative attacks on American women’s health and rights in a generation, with over 1000 reproductive health bills introduced across the country.

Richards called particular attention to the November 2 hearing held by the congressional House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health. The hearing questioned whether a new interim rule under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which required most private health plans to provide contraceptives without co-pays violated “conscience rights” by forcing employers to pay for coverage of services to which they object. Employers specifically affiliated with a religion were granted exemption under the preventative services rule, but opponents suggested the exemption was too narrow in that it failed to cover individuals, schools, hospitals, or charities that may also object to birth control.

In a society built on the preponderance of individual liberties, how do “conscience rights” pass the legality test? Why should the government step in to allow groups (i.e., employers) to decide who can access (health) benefits and who cannot? Does this not lead to discriminatory access to health care based on differences in religious views between employer and employee? Says Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, “Institutions that operate in the public sphere … should not be allowed to impose one particular religious view on the general public, including their employees.”   

Pragmatic Republicans should accept that this issue is simultaneously symbolic and discriminatory: access to contraceptives has never been shown to increase the rate of sex, contrary to opposition arguments, but it can potentially reduce the rate of population growth (and abortion). Decreased growth means less potential long-run costs for the government (health care, welfare, schooling, etc.) which many small government believers suggest is already too interventionist in the sphere of individual freedoms. How is a woman’s right to her body any less critical than an individual’s right to just about anything else?

The battle against women is an old trick of party pandering. It represents an intrusive invasion into a woman’s right to protect herself and her body from discriminatory and religiously-affiliated government intervention. 

Republicans must start to adopt a more cogent take on individual rights and stop delaying their responsibility to refocus on issues of national concern.

Photo Credit: S. Mirk   

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