Which Side Are We On in the Struggle for Women's Rights

News Abroad

Mr. Conn, a writer for the History News Service, is an associate professor in the history department at Ohio State University.

For the last several years, the United States has depicted the battle against terrorism as a contest pitting free societies against those who would impose Islamic rule on the world. But across the globe right now the epochal struggle is not between Islam and the West, but between those societies in which women are free and those in which they are repressed.

Women's lives are controlled in those nations observing some form of Islamic law. The Taliban first came to the world's horrified attention with reports of the beatings, stonings and summary executions of women who were held to have violated Islamic law. Throughout the Islamic world women are not permitted to move freely in public, are denied full access to educational and economic life and are barred from voting. In Saudi Arabia -- our ally in the fight against terrorism -- women are even forbidden to drive cars.

Social and political control over women's bodies, however, extends well beyond the Islamic world. In many African societies women are forced to have their genitals mutilated. Rape has routinely been used as an instrument of war from Bosnia to Darfur. The trafficking of women in sexual slavery is now endemic across much of Eastern Europe and Asia, but has generated only a tepid response from governments in those regions.

In the developing world, it has been a truism for a generation that the surest indicators of a country's social and economic progress are the educational levels of its women and women's ability to limit their pregnancies. Put crudely, as education for women goes up and family size goes down, societies prosper. In the Catholic third world, women are denied access to birth control as a matter of law. In El Salvador, women and doctors are jailed for having illegal abortions. No coincidence that many of these places have stagnating economies.

During the 20th century, the control of women's reproductive lives marked the most despicable regimes. Among the first things the Nazis did upon seizing power in 1933 was to outlaw abortion. Family planning centers were closed, access to contraception made increasingly difficult and abortion criminalized. By 1943 the Nazis made abortion a capital offense punishable by the death penalty. Stalin too outlawed abortion in 1936, and both dictators clearly saw control of women's reproduction as a part of the larger apparatus of state control and repression.

States that are repressive enough to control women's contraceptive options are just as likely to control other aspects of childbearing. The Romanian despot Nicolae Ceausescu made contraception illegal in 1966 for any woman who had fewer than five children. Not satisfied with that, 20 years later, in 1986, he created a monitoring system for all pregnant women, and miscarriages became subject to a criminal investigation. These acts forced women to have children whether they wanted to or not, and 200,000 of those children wound up in those infamous orphanages. Just as tyrannically, China, which limits family size by law, has long been accused of coercing women to have abortions and be sterilized.

So as Ohio and Louisiana rush to join South Dakota in attempting to criminalize abortion, we should ask: which side are we on? Are we among those societies that permit women the full measure of their freedom or with those that control women's bodies in the service of a larger state agenda?

Remember that for many, especially on the religious right, abortion and contraception are no different. What they really want is to control the reproductive choices we all make in accordance with their particular ideas. Those of us who want the right to plan our own families are already being held hostage by these zealots. They have kept the early-abortion pill RU-486 off the market, pressured pharmacies not to sell birth control, and limited the availability of reproductive education in schools.

The lesson of the 20th century is clear, at least to the rest of the world. Free societies allow their citizens to make their own reproductive decisions; repressive ones restrict them. Which side are we on when this administration votes with countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to block funding for family planning initiatives in the United Nations?

For their part, the Romanians deeply understood the intrinsic connection between freedom and reproductive choice. On December 26, 1989, the day after the evil Ceausescu had been toppled, the National Salvation Front issued two decrees: it lifted the ban on the private ownership of typewriters, and it repealed the laws that policed pregnant women.

No society can be called a free society until and unless women are free to make their own decisions about family planning, and this includes the United States. So are we going to join those nations where women enjoy their freedom or are we going to follow places such as Iran, Saudia Arabia and El Salvador, which treat their women as less than free? Which side are we going to be on?

This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.

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S J - 7/20/2006

It is a very common misconception. I think that is part of the problem really, people really don't understand what they are arguing about when it comes to these medications.
I'm certainly not an expert - and I wouldn't want the decision to be left up to me.

Jacque W. Leighty - 7/19/2006

Thanks, Samuel. I was among those confusing mifepristone with other "morning-after" applications grouped under the heading of ECPs. Live and learn!

S J - 7/19/2006

I'm not a Doctor but I'm pretty sure that "the morning after pill" is different from the RU-486 - see Wikipedia for instance:

"Emergency contraceptive pill —referred to simply as "emergency contraception," "ECPs," or "ECs", or "morning-after pill" —are hormones that act both to prevent ovulation or fertilisation, or perhaps the subsequent implantation of a fertilised egg (zygote). ECPs are not to be confused with chemical abortion drugs like Mifepristone (formerly RU-486) that act after implantation has occurred."

Jacque W. Leighty - 7/18/2006

A "war on women," as Conn polemically characterizes issues associated with reproductive conduct, might account for the eristic tone and the shallow logic of the ensuing remarks. Frantic politicization of a complex human issue, which the author deplores and in which he participates, flattens out all kinds of associated health issues. Habitues of this site are well acquainted with the identity of the first victim in any "war."

For instance, Conn cites controls on the use of a "morning-after pill" medication as evidence of a "war" on women. RU-486 cannot be used without misoprostol (the generic name of Cytotec), an ulcer drug commonly applied off-label by obstetricians as a cervical ripener and labor-induction agent. It's inexpensive but violent, and since it is produced only for internal consumption in tablet form, it is impossible to regulate the dosage with precision. (Small pills are sectioned, and fragments are applied manually to the woman's vagina. The distribution of the active ingredient in the tablet is, of course, a matter of speculation.) Furthermore, unlike FDA-tested and approved labor induction agents, Cytotec has no "off switch." Although its action is invariably violent, it rarely fails. When it does fail, however, it radically degrades the cellular integrity of the uterus and delivery path, triggering uncontollable hemorrhaging normally leading to the death of both the baby and the mother.

In the partisan spirit of Conn's vituperative column, one might observe that Cytotec is the only off-label application recognized by a medical specialty as a "standard of care," with grim implications for the physicians' effective performance of duties of informed consent under the Nuremberg Code. As one might cynically expect, it is used far more often in public hospitals than in private ones, many of which shield their affluent patients from it through local medical protocols. And, yes, it is used far more often poor women than on the well-heeled and well-insured, not out of malice--ACOG pretends, in the admitted absence of evidence from any sufficiently wide clinical trials, that whatever goes wrong in cases of fatal reaction must the the fault of the mothers . . . . (Sociologists refer to the reflex as "blaming the victim." Classic.)

In any event, there are sound medical grounds for opposing the unsupervised use of RU-486 that have absolutely no direct bearing on the easy availability of inexpensive and reliable birth control measures. From a reading--and an incredulous re-reading--of Conn's position paper, I could not discern any underlying complexities of this sort. Our Puritanical heritage of sexual mores, evident in a wide range of orientations toward the ethics of intercourse, continues to animate intemperate contributions to discussion like the one offered here. In social policy resting on complex technical issues, it would be a good idea to attend carefully to the technical issues themselves before concern over the social implications of policy implementation causes us to lose our composure, and our rhetorical self-control.

Frederick Thomas - 7/18/2006

Birth control before 1960?

Condoms, "rhythm" and abstinance come to mind, and cost a lot less in every sense than the utterly barbaric option of abortion, ripping a child apart in unspeakable violence, piling its body parts up in a Petrie dish beside the often horrified mother, which was pushed to the fore as a solution by shacked-up, dumbed down, drugged out '60s floozies who could not remember with whom they last slept.

John R. Maass - 7/17/2006

Neither comment curiously addresses Conn's linking Stalin and Nazi's with those who oppose abortion. That is the despicable aspect of his column, as is advocating abortion as family planning. Additionally, scare tactics like the comments about an alleged effort to prevent people from getting contraceptives is hyperbole at best. Where can you not buy a condom? Does any serious citizen of the US really think this will occur? No.

S J - 7/17/2006

Did you miss how Dr. Conn writes about how the religious right has, ". . .pressured pharmacies not to sell birth control, and limited the availability of reproductive education in schools".

This leads me to ask a couple of questions:

-If I can't buy condoms or my girlfriend isn't able to buy 'the pill' how am I supposed to prevent pregnancy? Voodoo magic? I've tried asking my pastor about this . . .and thankfully, I'm Lutheran, so I am allowed to wear a paper bag over my head during intercourse. . . or something like that (I went to public school - so I'm not exactly sure how this all works).

In fourth grade, I learned that if I do certain non-intercourse sexual acts with a woman, she can get pregnant - and I believed it. I still avoid holding hands with women for this very reason.

Ok, more seriously, one of my closest friends in high school had parents who were slightly conservative. They elected that their son should take the 'alternative' health class that taught abstinence. To make a long story short, I guess little Jimmy didn't listen very well in class (which was held before school started at 6 am) and he wound up being the first person in my group of friends to have sexual intercourse. (SHOCKER!) Sure enough, his first experience was unprotected and my friends who took the regular health course had to give him a crash course on the morning after pill for his girlfriend.

I'm off to go buy some more paper bags.

Lisa Kazmier - 7/17/2006

I guess you've never heard of contraception failure or have it in your mind that in pre birth control pill days the options to limit family size cannot include abortion.

Care to list the number of family planning options prior to the 1960s? In some places, the options might not be very large.

John R. Maass - 7/17/2006

Mr. Conn writes: "Those of us who want the right to plan our own families are already being held hostage by these zealots." There are other ways of planning a family besides abortion, which I am surprised Mr. Conn doesn't know about. In fact, many of those who have abortions haven't actually "planned" at all. I find it very interesting that the way to Conn makes an argument here is to link the religious right and Catholics with Stalin and Hitler, conveniently forgetting that many are opposed to abortion who are not on the right at all. Sounds like linking communisim with un-Americanism, about which we hear so much high-pitched yelling from the left. I wonder if the author thought of this double-standard?