The 2012 U.S. Presidential election will take place against a fierce cultural battle over the status, lives, and even bodies of the nation's women.

The United States is still involved in two wars. The first is the one in Afghanistan, and the second is what Washington calls a war on terror. In domestic politics, however, it is involved in what the New York Times has called a war on women, one which is being waged mainly by the Republican Party.

Employment and pay

The first war-front here is employment and pay. The Republican-held state of Wisconsin has recently revised a 2009 law which had enabled individuals to file wage-discrimination cases in state courts rather than the less accessible federal courts. As Jessica Pieklo points out on the online community site Care2, women in the U.S. typically earn 77 cents to every dollar men earn, but in Wisconsin they earn only 75 cents, and as a result families there lose, on average, about $4,000 a year in earnings. The pay differential itself has consequences, for example by restricting women's own spending on health care, but the new law makes it harder for women to bring challenges against gender-based wage discrimination.

The impact of this kind of legislation is clear; despite reductions in legal protection, claims for dismissal and other forms of discrimination against women simply because they have become pregnant have risen. A campaigning group says the number of cases brought has gone up by 23 per cent, and among firms which have paid damages are Delta Airlines and Verizon.

The underlying Republican assumption seems to be that women's place is in the home; in Maryland, the Republican state government has ended local authority funding for poorer children to attend preschool centres; the national party wants to cut $1 billion from the same programme, Head Start, which has documented long-term benefits throughout children's school education; the cut could keep 2,00,000 children out of Head Start, and in turn remove even more women from the workforce.

Domestic violence

The second Republican front is the law on domestic violence. Since the Violence Against Women Act was passed with bipartisan support in 1994, reporting of domestic violence has increased by 51 per cent. Now the renewal bill faces Republican opposition apparently because it helps too many people; Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa even claims that illegal aliens might exploit their status as victims of domestic violence to seek official protection and thereby gain access to U.S. citizenship. Mr. Grassley's position could put domestic violence against illegal aliens beyond the reach of the law.

Birth control

As for the third front, it is the matter of women's control of their own fertility. The main Republican target is the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe vs Wade, which awarded women the right to an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, and on certain medical grounds within the first 20 weeks. The rights which that decision created have already been restricted; the 1976 Hyde amendment restricts the use of certain federal funds for abortion services, and the Webster decision of 1989 prohibits the use of public funds in non-therapeutic abortions. More recently, the House of Representatives in Washington went even further, introducing a bill which redefines government funds so widely as to ban abortion coverage by all insurers who participate in the new health care system devised by President Obama.

That, however, is not enough for the Republican right. In February 2011, legislators in South Dakota proposed a bill which would make it lawful to murder any doctor who performed abortions. The South Dakota bill was dropped, but Wisconsin has banned health insurers from covering abortions. Texas now requires any woman who seeks an abortion to have an ultrasound scan, irrespective of consent or clinical need; the further requirement that the doctor must show the woman the image and describe it will mean the use of a transvaginal rather than an abdominal scanner. And, almost surrealistically, Arizona has legislated that a baby's age must be calculated from the first day of a woman's menstrual period before conception. This, as one critic points out, takes all women of childbearing age as pregnant because they might conceive in the near future.

Even rights to contraception are at risk. Jessica Valenti notes in the Nation that Dr. David Hager, a Bush appointee to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), voted against emergency contraception — the so-called morning-after pill — because it would not curb what he called irresponsible behaviour; his FDA colleague Janet Woodcock thought that it would cause “extreme” promiscuity, which could in turn lead to the creation of “sex-based adolescent cults.”

Health care bill

The evidence, however, according to bodies like the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit research body, is that while teenage girls today are no more sexually active than they were in previous decades, their use of contraceptives has risen sharply, especially in first sexual encounters, and birth rates among U.S. teenagers are at their lowest for 70 years.

Nevertheless, neither the Republican right nor their fellow-travellers on this issue take much notice of such inconvenient facts. For example, in 2009, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — even though its charitable status means it is not supposed to engage in lobbying — put great pressure on Democrats in the House of Representatives to include abortion-related restrictions in President Obama's flagship health care bill; the 39 Democrats concerned faced the option of sinking the bill by withdrawing their support for it, or of voting for a bill which included the bishops' restrictions. They did the latter.

The Catholic bishops, needless to say, are all male, and most of them are of mature years — much like the bulk of the men who have been voting in the Republican primaries. Timothy Egan writes in a New York Times blog that in South Carolina, 98 per cent of primary voters were white, 72 per cent were 45 or older and nearly two-thirds were evangelical Christians; but the state's population, with a median age of about 38, is only 66 per cent white. Demographically, Republican primary voters are very similar to their counterparts of 1890; in addition, turnouts have been so low that barely three per cent of registered voters took part in the Nevada primary.

It is therefore, as Laura Basset points out in the Huffington Post, not surprising that the Republican right and the Catholic bishops are apparently unaware of vast changes in the lives of Americans; 98 per cent of sexually active American Catholic women over 18 have used some form of contraception proscribed by their faith, and 99 per cent of all sexually experienced American women have used some form of artificial contraception.

Furthermore, in 2010, religious orders with a total of 59,000 nuns among their membership wrote to Congress supporting the health care bill and correctly pointing out that the bill provided no funds for elective abortions.

Once again though, inconvenient facts may have little impact in this raging culture war, which in the words of the political commentator, Anne Taylor Fleming, has come to rest atop the female body. The evidence is that on the Republican right, the war is being driven by men who may resemble earlier voters demographically but whose attitudes are closer to those held by the narrowest and most rigid puritans of 1590 rather than 1890. They could yet shape American society for decades to come, and not for nothing are many of them called the Christian Taliban.

arvinds@thehindu.co.in

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