The Religious Right is Wrong on Women’s Reproductive Rights

By  Kollengode S Venkataraman (published in January 2006)

Ever since US Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in 1973 on Roe vs. Wade that gave women freedom on their reproductive rights, religious and social conservatives — Protestants, Catholics, and conservative Jews — have formed a loose political alliance to work toward denying women any option in their reproductive decisions.

Anti-Reproductive Rights people are Republicans’ single-issue-based vote bank. So, Republicans seeking statewide and national offices (as senators, governors, and presidents) have been successfully wooing these voters with their shrill anti-Abortion rhetoric. These conservatives with their extensive network through places of worship never miss an opportunity to deliberately frame the question simplistically in black-and-white terms and demonize those wanting to retain women’s reproductive rights.

And they do it brilliantly. First, they invoke God exclusively to themselves, and call themselves pro-Life. They paint their opponents with the darkest brush, as pro-Abortion, worse still, as “baby killers.” These God-loving pious people also occasionally turn violent against healthcare workers providing comprehensive counseling (including abortion) to women confronting unwanted pregnancies—unwanted for genuine reasons. 

Unfortunately, most of life’s dilemmas rarely offer themselves in clear black-and-white terms; they come with varying shades of gray. Right-wing ideologues know this, but they are disingenuous in appealing to their single-issue vote bank.

When they call themselves pro-Life, by implication, they paint their opponents as anti-Life. After all, who can be anti-Life? And who can be for Abortion? The religious conservatives deliberately muddy the water by trying to make pro-Abortion Rights the same as Pro-Abortion.

On moral and ethical grounds, all are against abortions. But I am not sure whether we are unanimous in denying a woman rights on how she should proceed with her pregnancy when she is confronted with medical, social, criminal, and other agonizing personal circumstances.

Besides, we can never foresee all the combinations of circumstances — medical, social, personal — in which women would find pregnancy burdensome. Teenage pregnancy and pregnancies due to rape and incest are well-known. But new diagnostic tools of today detect with great accuracy serious birth defects in the fetuses even in the very early stages of pregnancies. All these circumstances are gut wrenching for the pregnant woman who is remorseful, and has to decide with the clock ticking when she is already petrified about her helplessness.

Take the case of a pregnant woman coming to know that her fetus is having a 99% probability of having a serious birth defect that would require that the newborn would need constant care all through its life — infancy, childhood, and adulthood. This is gut-wrenching. The pregnant woman and her husband may be willing to go ahead with the pregnancy and make personal commitment to provide the personal care. Still, the question of who will provide the care for the invalid person, after the they are dead and gone will haunt the parents so long as they are alive.

If the anti-Reproductive Rights people want to deny women their reproductive rights, they can coerce the state legislatures and the Congress to ban abortions through legislation. But this is easily said that done, and they know it. What they find difficult to accomplish through legislation, they try to ramrod through litigation. They walk test cases through the labyrinth of the nation’s court system all the way to the US Supreme Court. There, a group of nine men and women are the ultimate arbiters of all disputes, and beyond which we have no other recourse.

In closely decided cases with 5:4 majority rulings, in reality, it is not even the group of nine that decides the case. The single judge who can tip the balance from a 4:5 defeat to a 5:4 victory decides cases that may have far-reaching implications.  As a matter of fact, that is how we have George W. Bush as our 43rd president in 2000 elections.

It is worth remembering Chief Justice Earl Warren deciding the case against school desegregation in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. Justice Warren took considerable time in persuading his wavering brethren on the bench for arriving at a unanimous verdict. Given the social divisiveness of race in America, Justice Warren understood the inflammatory nature of a narrow 5-to-4 verdict would have on America.

The Warren court actually did politicians a favor by unanimously voting for school desegregation. The unanimous decision in Brown vs Board of Education gave politicians additional cover to stand up against those who were comfortable with the status quo. Politicians always dump on the courts issues that are too hot for them to resolve politically.

In politics in the US, the hold of “Family Value” conservatives is quite substantial. Yet, teenage pregnancy, high divorce rates, and single parent households are all facts of life.

In Japan and South Korea, both non-Christian nations without a fervor of excessive religiosity and piety, the incidence of teenage pregnancy is relatively low. Their men and women may lack all the freedom we boast of here. But traditional family values with emphasis on pride, honor and social obligation without the self-righteousness we see in the US is the bedrock of their societies.

In the US, while higher income families have two-career professionals, lower income families often have two parents trying to manage three lower-paying jobs just to stay afloat. Whatever the case, post-puberty children stay alone in homes till parents return, often without adult supervision. And making matters worse, quality after-school childcare, something that state provides in several progressive European societies, is not affordable to low-income families in the US.

For women confronting unwanted pregnancies all choices are bad, each having its own physiological and psychological scars to live with for the rest of their lives. Now, if the anti-Reproductive Rights religious conservatives have their way, they would tell the pregnant woman what she should do, or what she can not do, rather than letting her decide what she wants to do under very difficult circumstances.

One thing they, the religious conservatives, with all their energy and  resources can do is to educate youngsters to be responsible toward each other on sexual matters, and provide adequate and affordable after-school programs to teenagers in low-income areas so that we greatly reduced the opportunity for teenage girls to become pregnant in the first place.

If the religious conservatives get their soul mates as judges to the US Supreme Court and succeed in overturning Roe v. Wade, the only victims would be the urban and rural poor — black, brown, or yellow and white. The middle and the affluent classes, if they want to get abortion for their women, can and will discreetly go to Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, where terminating pregnancies is legal. They have the time and resources. The poor don’t.

The realistic option for us as a society is to first of all do everything we can through adult supervision, secular, social and religious education, and by instilling true family values — honor, pride, even guilt for wrong-doing, and personal responsibility — to our young men and women so that we eliminate, or at least substantially reduce, teenage pregnancy.

And just as a “nuclear option” that politicians and warfare strategists want to retain as their last and most potent weapon in their arsenal—the modern version of Brahmastram of the Indian epics—as a civilized society, we need to retain the reproductive rights women now have under the 1973 Roe v Wade decision. Just so that if there is a rare need for terminating pregnancies on medical, social, and extraneous personal grounds, all women, even the poorest of the poor, will have the option. And have the option without getting harassed by religious extremists meddling in their personal affairs; without incurring huge expenses towards travel; and without endangering their lives by going to unqualified people in desperation.

Unfortunately, Republicans, in their vote bank approach to electoral  politics, have made this sensitive and divisive issue a litmus test in the political dialogue and in appointing judges into federal courts including the US Supreme Court. They have forced others, even a small magazine like this one, to take a stand on the issue. — END


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