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Why Mama Grizzlies Vote Pro-Choice

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WMC Co-founder Gloria Steinem writes about the most crucial economic issues for women on Election Day–and the real Mama Grizzlies.

You may have noticed that Democratic candidates in tight races are actually bringing up the subject of abortion. In the past, they probably voted for the right of a woman and her doctor to make this decision, but then hoped the subject would just go away. Now that polls are showing women of all races to be the major firewall between Democrats and disaster, they are suddenly remembering that one in three American women needs an abortion at some time in her life, and that Republican candidates almost never get past their own primaries without promising to largely or totally criminalize it.

Indeed, the Republican Party Platform calls for a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would create a direct relationship between the law and the fertilized egg, thus allowing women’s wombs to be legally searched, women to be legally detained throughout pregnancy, and effectively, women’s bodies to be nationalized during our childbearing years.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But reproductive issues have always been a fast and clear way of demonstrating that the Republican Party of Barry Goldwater, Nelson Rockefeller, Edward Brooke, Connie Morella, Lincoln Chafee, even Ronald Reagan as governor and the first George Bush as a congressman─all of whom were pro-choice as are most individual Republicans─is now led by religious and economic totalitarians. After all, what true conservative would want to get government off the backs of corporations and into the wombs of women?

The problem is that many Democrats have spent so long avoiding the subject of abortion─for example, downplaying it or even bargaining it away during the health care debate─that they haven’t a clue how to talk about it. As if to insure their own defeat, they sideline this and other reproductive rights as “social issues,” thus allowing media, pundits and even voters themselves to assume that such concerns are not as important or motivating as what are called “economic issues.” Having children is also seen as an isolated event─real life experience to the contrary─but so-called economic concerns are seen as perpetual and all-consuming.

This false division into unserious and serious comes from the old idea that production, a traditionally male sphere, is more important than reproduction, a more female sphere. Or the assumption that what happens to men is politics and can be changed, but what happens to women is culture and can’t be changed.

In fact, for 40 years that I know of, women’s movements, academic researchers and United Nations conferences have all been explaining that reproductive freedom─the right to decide when and whether to have a child, without government interference─is a fundamental human right. At least as much as freedom of speech or assembly, it affects every part of life.

The truth is that next to air, water and food, the ability of a woman to decide when and whether to give birth is the most powerful and common determinant of whether she is healthy or not, educated or not, working outside the home or not, active in civic and political life or not, and how long she’s likely to live. Supporting women’s need to prevent or space pregnancies is also the most effective way of combating infant mortality, birth defects, the inability of children to bond and thrive, violent conflict over scarce resources, and irreversible damage to this fragile Space Ship Earth.

These are global facts. Modern democracies other than our own recognize them and support reproductive rights, from sex education in schools and subsidized health care that includes contraception and child birth—with abortion as a lessened and uncontroversial element—to national systems of childcare, parental leave and work patterns that allow both women and men to be nurturing parents.

In this country, however, right-wing opposition to sex education in public schools and to birth control as preventive health care─indeed, opposition to same-sex couples or any admission that human sexuality is not now and never has been solely about reproduction─has contributed to the highest teenage birthrate in any developed country. Indeed, 60 percent of all U.S. births are unplanned. That’s twice the rate of unintended pregnancies in comparable nations.

It’s an added cruelty that the same right-wing forces punish the 82 percent of U.S. women who do become mothers by opposing enforcement of equal pay, equal education and job training, even funding for nutrition programs for pregnant women, childcare programs or domestic violence shelters. This has all the ingredients of the perfect male supremacist storm: Women are cheap labor themselves and give birth to more cheap labor.

For instance:

  • The gap in pay between women and men has been narrowing, but the gap in pay between women with children and women without children has been widening. The latter now often exceeds the former. This has become known as the Maternal Wall.
  • When mothers and non-mothers with the same resumes applied for full-time jobs, one study showed that non-mothers were offered an average of $11,000 more per year. Though mothers would be working for less, they were 44 percent less likely to be hired at all.
  • Women’s wages decrease after having children while men’s wages increase. Employers assume that parenthood is motivating to male employees, but de-motivating to female employees. This remains true even when the women in question are single mothers with no other source of income.
  • When a father stays home with his sick child, he’s likely to suffer fewer consequences at work than a mother who does the same. Employers assume fathers are more committed to their jobs than mothers are.
  • Tearing down this Maternal Wall would cut the poverty rate for dual earner families by 25 percent, and the poverty rate for single mothers by half, according to the Center for Women Policy Studies. It also would reward female talent at higher levels. In one study, for instance, 700 law partners who were mothers were paid 22 percent less than law partners who were fathers.
  • Health insurance may cover Viagra for men, but exclude prescription birth control for women. This is despite the fact that the second saves millions of dollars in unwanted births, while the first saves no money and costs much more.

Again, you can’t make this stuff up.

In these last crucial days before the election, we as self-respecting voters need to find out which candidates support reproductive freedom and vote for those who do. For women especially─but not only─it’s the biggest economic determinant of them all.

In fact, Mama Grizzlies─so misrepresented for political purposes by Sarah Palin─know this, too. In real life, they are famous for their exercise of reproductive freedom. For example, female grizzlies mate later than other bears, have only one or two cubs at a time, and wait up to twice as many years between births. If after they are pregnant, conditions are not good─for instance, their health is poor, the food supply is unreliable, or the winter is too harsh─they reabsorb the embryo into their bodies in self-abortion and just don’t give birth that year.

Of course, Sarah Palin was recruited into politics by anti-abortion forces. She also supports aerial hunting of bears and other animals, which in Alaska means shooting them from a plane or chasing them to exhaustion in a helicopter that lands for a close-up kill.

If only she would learn from the lives of Mama Grizzlies instead, she would know that reproductive freedom is natural: every living thing has the right to be born healthy and wanted.

So do we.

More articles by Category: Economy, Gloria Steinem, Politics
More articles by Tag: Abortion, Elections, Women's leadership



Gloria Steinem
Co-founder, Women's Media Center, writer, activist
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