Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Stone Age in three acts:
Women’s reproductive rights and the GOP

Brazen ineptitude and unbridled arrogance have never been in short supply this political season. There’s maybe never been clearer evidence of this year’s bumper crop of those commodities than three events last week, courtesy of the Republican Party. While you weren’t looking, the Republicans took a trip back to the past.

The GOP’s obsession with gender politics as a paleontological experience revealed itself in three demonstrations of how thoroughly the Republican Party has abandoned women as citizens and as a core constituency, and how, just as thoroughly, the GOP has retrenched to the relative comforts of the white-male past as a way of facing the future — a future likely to be convened without it.

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On Thursday, in a scenario worthy of Kafka or Orwell, Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, convened a hearing on birth control, this in the wake of the recent controversy over an Obama administration regulation requiring health insurance coverage for contraception.

But this first Issa hearing on women’s reproductive health care, focused as it was not on that health care not from a medical or policy perspective but solely on the basis of “religious freedom,” was convened with no women on the panel. Five men of various faiths appeared, and there wasn’t an ovary between them.

Obviously, it didn’t go unnoticed. “Where are the women?” New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney asked at the hearing. "When I look at this panel, I don't see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic, preventative health care services, including family planning … where are the women?”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the Oversight Committee, asked to invite a witness, Sandra Fluke, a third-year Georgetown University Law Center student, but was rejected before the hearing even began.

“Rather than inviting witnesses on both sides of this issue to engage in a reasoned and balanced discussion, you have constructed one of the most one-sided hearings I have ever seen, stacking it only with witnesses who agree with your position,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Issa the day before the hearings.

Three Democrats — Maloney, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and Rep. Mike Quigley — finally had enough and walked out in protest, Holmes Norton telling reporters that Issa’s hearing was going down like the work of "an 'autocratic regime," The Daily Kos reported.

Issa’s office defended his decision to bar Fluke from his hearings’ first panel (there were two on a second, chosen by Republicans) on the grounds that “the hearing is not about reproductive rights but instead about the administration’s actions as they relate to freedom of religion and conscience,” adding that the California congressman “believes that Ms. Fluke is not an appropriate witness.”

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Clearly, the past is a comfortable place for conservatives. For Foster Friess, über-wealthy former investment manager and Rick Santorum SuperPAC sugar daddy, it’s the fount of cherished memories. Mr. Friess (yes, sounds just like you think) lent his cogent, informed voice to the birth control debate-that-shouldn’t-be-a-debate in a Thursday interview with Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC:

“This contraceptive thing, my gosh, it’s such inexpensive — you know, back in my days, they’d use Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly,” Friess said to a flabbergasted Mitchell.

Santorum, gaining in the polls, understandably did his best to put distance between himself and his benefactor, disavowing any knowledge of his actions. “This is someone who is a supporter of mine, and I’m not responsible for every comment that a supporter of mine makes,” Santorum said Friday on CBS’s “This Morning.” “It was a bad joke, it was a stupid joke, and it is not reflective of me or my record on this issue.”

Chastened, Friess apologized online: “I can understand how I confused people with the way I worded the joke and their taking offense is very understandable. To all those who took my joke as modern-day approach, I deeply apologize and seek your forgiveness. My wife constantly tells me I need new material—she understood the joke but didn’t like it anyway—so I will keep that old one in the past where it belongs.”

But Friess’ comments not only established a link, if only a casual one, between Santorum and the multi-miillionaire caveman bankrolling his campaign; it pointed to a wider observable fact: conservatives are doubling down on generations-old misperceptions about women’s reproductive rights, and a willingness to minimize the importance of those rights in furtherance of what appears to be an open hostility toward American women across the board.

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The most obvious example of that may come to pass this week. Bob McDonnell, the governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and a man who’s all but posted his résumé in search of a vice presidential gig, is apparently set to sign into law SB484, a measure passed on Tuesday by the state’s House of Delegates and Senate, requiring any woman seeking a first-trimester abortion in Virginia to undergo a medically unnecessary vaginal probe to “determine gestational age” — an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure that is, in effect, a state-sanctioned rape.

(Rachel Maddow ratcheted up the ridicule in outrageous fashion last week when she unveiled a series of “commemorative Bob McDonnell vaginal probes” on her MSNBC program.)

Virginia's Democratic State Senators, in the minority in that chamber, fought to add an amendment to the legislation allowing a doctor or patient to refuse the ultrasound, but it was defeated.

For every reason you can think of, women are up in arms. Petitions are being circulated trying to get McDonnell to reconsider. “It’s time to show lawmakers that Virginians can see through this insidious attempt to undermine reproductive rights in Virginia,” said the state’s chapter of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), on its Pro-Choice Virginia blog.

Judi Crenshaw on Henrico, Va., told WTVR that her daughters, 21 and 19, will probably begin their working lives somewhere outside Virginia — partly because of opportunities, but also because of the actions of state government.

"Why would you want to make a contribution? Why would you want to build your life here?" Crenshaw said. "When this is the discussion that they're having, when it's not a place that treats women equally?"

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The Republican Party is road-testing this time-travel stage play in three acts, from the idiotic to the barbaric, now, in the primary season. It would be the stuff of comedy or political farce, if only it weren’t true. It would be funny if it weren’t being done in apparently deadly earnest.

On Capitol Hill, in the Commonwealth of Virginia and in the geographically limitless space of the public discourse, the Republican Party has put women in the crosshairs.

With a breathtaking indifference to the women of America, a cohort of this nation that votes as reliably as any other in its history, the GOP is doing its part to make sure that another production gets underway, next Jan. 20, in Washington, D.C.: the second inaugural of President Obama.

Image credits: Issa: ABC News. Friess: MSNBC. McDonnell: © 2010 Gage Skidmore. Vaginal probe: "The Rachel Maddow Show," MSNBC.

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