Lynn Morgan, Mary E. Woolley Professor of Anthropology and chair of the Department of Gender Studies, specializes in medical anthropology, the anthropology of gender and sexualities, and reproductive governance in Latin America. With all the media coverage of political fighting over women’s reproductive rights and access to contraception, Questioning Authority sat down with Morgan to get her take on these issues.
Questioning Authority: Why are women's reproductive rights at the forefront of political discourse right now?
Lynn Morgan: They’re at the forefront right now largely because we’re approaching a presidential election. Politicians tend to use issues such as abortion and gay marriage to mobilize their base and get people to the polls. All too often, they use women’s bodies as a battleground. Fortunately, women and men are standing up against these attacks, arguing that contraception is a component of basic preventive health care in the twenty-first century. The increase in activism is heartening. Just a few weeks ago, a flood of protest forced the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation to reverse its decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood. On March 1, feminist activists demonstrated at the Oklahoma State Capitol against the so-called “Personhood Act” that would confer the legal status of personhood on human embryos. The backlash against reproductive and sexual rights is galvanizing a new generation of grassroots activists who believe that women (and men) should not be denied access to contraception or forced against their will to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term.
QA: The Virginia Senate just passed a bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound prior to having an abortion, and this is likely to be signed into law soon. What impact do you think this will have in Virginia and in other states?
LM: Several states have introduced legislation to require mandatory ultrasound exams prior to an abortion. The measures, however, are risky. In Virginia, the proposal to require ultrasound using a transvaginal probe was likened by some opponents to state-sponsored rape, and the resulting damage to Governor Bill McDonnell’s reputation may have cost him his aspirations for higher office. A similar bill pending in Alabama was quickly withdrawn. Because there is no evidence that viewing a pre-abortion ultrasound persuades women to change their minds, the mandatory ultrasound bills have to be seen as another attempt to harass women and create obstacles to those seeking to exercise their legal right to abortion.
QA: Why is women's access to contraception, which hasn't been a major national issue (particularly in the media) for decades, suddenly a hot topic?
LM: It’s true that women’s access to contraception has returned to the headlines recently, although we should remember that extremist pro-life organizations—such as the Pro-Life Action League and the American Life League (ALL)—have long lobbied against contraception, which ALL calls “an evil that worms its way into many women’s lives.” The main reason that contraception is in the news today is because the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, passed two years ago, requires all medical insurance companies to make contraceptives available to their subscribers free of charge. Roman Catholic employers object to this provision, arguing that it deprives them of their religious liberty by forcing them to participate in activities they find objectionable. The vast majority of sexually active American women rely on birth control during their lives; it makes sense to include contraceptives in basic health services. On March 1, the Senate wisely rejected a bill that would have let employers and health insurance companies deny coverage for contraceptives based on religious conscience.
QA: What does the political fighting over these issues mean for women's reproductive rights? Should women be concerned about their access to reproductive health care?
LM: The political infighting over reproductive rights affects women, men, and families, and it keeps us from working toward family-friendly policies such as better parental leave, child care, and public education. It’s important not to take our reproductive rights for granted. The battle to win reproductive rights was underway when Margaret Sanger gave a lecture about birth control at Mount Holyoke in 1929, and it’s still going on. Poor women, Peace Corps volunteers, and women in the military (among others) are denied access to abortion services that are legally available to other Americans. While many young women grew up assuming that they would always have access to birth control and abortion, I hope that today’s headlines will make them realize that they’re the lucky ones, and that it will take political action to retain those rights and extend them to those who are disenfranchised.