Say WHAT!? – Reproductive rights and the healthcare debate.

More insanity from the front line of the US health care debate….

Last week, the Senate subcommittee on finance met to discuss the controversial issue of whether the federal government should be allowed to define what sort of health care provision should be included in private insurance coverage – a subject which was always going to bring the Republican dingbats out of the woodwork.

And so it did…

Meet Jon Kyl, the Republican Senator for Arizona, a man who clearly hasn’t quite got his head around his own responsibilities as a father and grandfather. How else can you explain this comment?

“I don’t need maternity care, and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don’t need and will make the policy more expensive.”

Well, Senator Kyl, you may not personally need maternity care, but, as Debbie Stabenow, the Democrat Senator for Michigan pointedly interjected:

“I think your mother probably did.”

Yes, Senator Kyl, and your wife, and your daughter, and your daughter-in-law – and probably also eventually your two grand-daughters too. Of course, Senator Kyl doesn’t have to worry his pretty little head about these things himself; as a US Senator, he gets free health care. That’s right, free health care. The stuff that the vast majority of Americans will never, ever get if he and his Republican cronies have their way.

Hmmm. Can anyone smell the whiff of hypocrisy in the Washington air? This seems like yet another case of a Republican with absolutely no knowledge of the facts on the ground (and no understanding of the lives of ordinary Americans) not engaging his brain before opening his mouth; something that has – sadly – become all too common in recent years.

Now, I’m well aware that this particular aspect of the whole health care argument will never actually effect me – I knew years ago that I didn’t want children, and I’m British, which means I already have access to free, universal health care (with ‘free’ meaning ‘no charge at the point of delivery – ever’ and ‘universal’ meaning ‘for everyone living in Britain’) – but as a feminist, the American right’s attitude to women’s health and reproductive rights just appals me on so many levels.

If the likes of Senator Kyl have their way, just being female will be enough of a ‘pre-existing condition’ to prevent women from getting insurance coverage full stop. In some states, this situation is well on its way to becoming reality – for example, from what I can gather, being a victim of domestic violence can, under some insurers, already be enough to deny a woman health care insurance, which is a disgustingly misogynistic state of affairs, and one of the worst cases of institutionalised victim blaming I have ever had the misfortune to see.

The amount of lies and misinformation spread by the right on these issues is just jaw-dropping, particularly for someone like me who grew up in a relatively liberal culture which allows free access to contraception and abortion within the National Health Service. Despite the faults of the British health care system, I have never had to worry about the cost of getting hold of condoms or the pill, never had to worry about the cost of becoming pregnant or whether I could afford it if I should need an abortion, never had to worry about paying for the provision of smear tests or treatment for cervical abnormalities – all of these hard-fought for things are provided free of charge for British women, allowing us control of our bodies and respecting our reproductive rights alongside freely giving us the information we need to keep ourselves safe and protected. For example, on the two occasions in the past when I have needed the morning after pill (emergency contraception), it has been freely available to me – complete with a run-down on the various forms of regular contraception I and my partner could possibly use to prevent such a situation in the future.

This approach to contraception credits British women with the kind of intelligence, autonomy and agency that a high percentage of the US right wish to deny to American women. The likes of Senator Kyl seem to see women as irrational and unable to make choices for themselves, and their bodies as objects to be controlled by men – ideas which would seem laughable if they weren’t so sinister, and didn’t hark back to historical justifications for denying women basic human rights. The more I learn about the shocking misogyny of the American right on the subject of female reproductive choices, the more I am glad to live in Britain…

I am well aware that the British system has its faults, and that sex education in this country is flawed and controversial (although not to the extent that it is across the Atlantic). It is true that Britain currently has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, but, as in the United States, these types of statistics must be placed within the wider social and cultural context before comment can be passed – and the idea that ‘easy access’ to sex education and contraception results in ‘promiscuous behaviour’ among teens is, quite frankly, right-wing scaremongering. If anything, high rates of teenage sexual activity and unplanned pregnancies at a young age result from a lack of access to sex education and contraception; no matter how much you preach abstinence, you’re not going to stop horny, hormonal young people discovering sex and their sexuality – so the least society can do is let them make such discoveries knowledgably and safely.

The numbers of teen mums in Britain, for example, vary on a regional basis, with high rates of conception often being found in areas of relative social and educational deprivation, where young women may not find themselves able to access contraceptive advice, or not have the knowledge or support to do so.

There is also some evidence that young girls on both sides of the Atlantic have found themselves pressured into having sex before they are ready, and/or pressured into having sex without contraception, a factor that seems to feeds back to wider cultural and societal ideas of the ubiquity and desirability of a sexual relationship – any sexual relationship; the ‘everybody’s-at-it-so-why-aren’t-you’ trope at work again, which seems all-important as a teenager. This trope certainly was central during my teenage years – I didn’t lose my virginity until the age of 19, and, for a long time, was convinced I would be the only one among my friends who never would! And I’m certain I was not the only young person who felt this way. But, like most teens, once I’d discovered the joys of sex, it would have been nigh on impossible to stop my hormonal teenage self from doing it – and that’s the whole point.

Whether you’re British or American matters not, it’s all very simple: no matter how you try, you can’t stop it, and you can’t start blaming sex education and the availability of contraception for teenage sexual activity and pregnancies when young people are getting totally mixed messages on the subject of sex – when young men and women are being told by society on the one hand that sex is absolutely cool and desirable, and that you’re a freak if you’re not getting any, but, on the other hand, also being told by the right that sex itself, sex education, contraception, and abortion are fundamentally wrong and responsible for all the evils in the world. No wonder so many young Americans are so confused…

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