Zillah Eisenstein

My writings, thoughts, and activism.

Abortion Is Not About Rape


Abortion is NOT about Rape: Our Bodies/ Their War

Sarah Eisenstein Stumbar, MD, MPH

PGY1 Resident, Department of Social Family Medicine

Montefiore Medical Center

Bronx, New York

Zillah Eisenstein

Distinguished Scholar in Residence

Scholar/Activist of Anti-Racist Feminisms

Ithaca College

Ithaca, New York


If the Republicans—Akin, Ryan, Mourdock, et al–are allowed to continue in the direction that they are headed, they will succeed at reducing the discussion about a woman’s right to reproductive health care—with abortion at its forefront–to the issue of rape. This reductionism disrespects the full human rights implications of a woman’s right to choose; and, instead, puts forth its very opposite: the total denial of a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body.

The power of rape already stems from the fact that it takes bodily control away from the woman. In its aftermath, how dare anyone tell a raped woman what she should or should not be doing with or for her already stolen body; regardless of whether her rape has resulted in pregnancy. After the total violation of her body and her right to control it, this woman gets to do whatever she thinks is best for her and her fetus. Where are these Republicans coming from, that they think that they have a right to tell this woman anything? And better yet, to say that God has anything to do with this decision or her body? No way.

The “war on women” that was launched in 2010 by the right-wing of the Republican party has continued throughout this presidential election. And it will continue, regardless of whether Obama/Biden or Romney/Ryan wins. Because of this perpetual right-wing assault on women’s rights, we will vote for Obama in the hopes that further pressure can then be put on him to stand not only firmly against this assault on women’s rights but also firmly in support of the reproductive health rights of all women.

The phrase “war on women” was, in part, chosen by reproductive rights activists to depict the continual Republican assaults against women’s rights to abortion and to health care more generally. This undermining of women’s reproductive healthcare rights was seen clearly in the Republican de-funding of public moneys throughout 2010. After the mid-term elections, 1100 provisions restricting women’s access to abortion were initiated on the state level.

Mandatory ultrasounds were discussed in Virginia, Iowa, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Alabama. Catholic Bishops led an assault on health care provisions in the Affordable Care Act that would require contraceptives to be paid for by insurance companies. An all male panel was convened by Darrell Issa to consider the validity of contraceptive mandates. The Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke was disallowed from speaking before the panel. Rush Limbaugh called her a slut and prostitute and suggested that contraceptives are necessary for women who just want too much sex. The federal funding for Planned Parenthood was once again fodder for right-wing anti-abortion activists; and this fight over funding even invaded the well-known breast cancer foundation Susan G Komen for the Cure, an organization supposedly dedicated to women’s health. The Akin fiasco continued and rekindled the sense of war and women under siege.

We want to speak to the complexity of the political moment we inhabit; and yet this is difficult given the quick sound bites any one of us is allowed to speak within. There is a “war on women;” but it is not exactly a war, or is it against all women. We live in times when there are new meanings to womanhood and to feminisms and even to the idea of what constitutes “women’s issues.” We are variously different and yet similar in terms of having female bodies.

So we appreciate when, in the second debate, Obama spoke about how women’s issues are also economic issues; and they affect all of us. We agree; and yet, female bodies can get pregnant. And, therefore, their need for reproductive choices–including abortion options–cannot be reduced to economic concerns, even though economics always plays a part in the right to choice. Where are we headed here? We are headed to the fact that we need to stay focused on BOTH the similar and the different women’s rights, here; both of which are required for full human needs to be met. This means that women’s rights are human rights; and yet this is not equivalent to saying that human rights are women’s rights. We need an extra set of rights. We need an agenda that pushes for this, and for the inclusive us that includes all of us. Yes, women’s issues are family issues as Obama says, but do not legitimize our individuality only in terms of family needs—they are not always one and the same.

The women’s rights agenda here must be clearly anti-imperialist both at home and abroad. This means that poor women cannot be colonized by those who are wealthier, either here or elsewhere.  So it is not sufficient that Hillary Clinton speaks on behalf of (supposedly all) women while overseeing drone attacks in Afghanistan and the shelling of Palestinian homes. This is its own form of modern-day colonization. There are (poor) women and girls being killed systematically in these policy initiatives. We need a war against the war on women that is non-imperial and anti-racist. Everything about this campaign disconnects the issues we need to connect. Foreign policy is not separate and apart from abortion policy; it is all embedded in a sexual politics.

We love it when Simone Campbell, one of the nuns on the bus, speaks about how everyone has a right to food, and shelter, and that poverty must be fought against at every opportunity. She calls this her “pro-life” stance. We would just simply add that a true “pro-life” stance must include the right to control all of ones bodily functions and potentialities, including pregnancy.

There is little new about the GOP war on women. Actually, it is old and hackneyed and caught in a time warp that limits debates. The Republicans drone on as though “we”—the big, encompassing “we”–live in the 1950s.  They continue to discuss and re-discuss women’s rights to their bodies and their labor; all of which has been said and re-said for at least the past four decades. The Republican war on women began in 1980 with Ronald Reagan and Phyllis Schlafly’s “new-Right” agenda. Today this has morphed into the Tea Party with Sarah Palin. If progressive feminists of all sorts keep addressing these tired ideas and politics, there is little room to go forward with the world that we presently inhabit.

What in the world could the Republicans be thinking? Shortly before the Convention, there were Todd Akins’ outbursts. He sounded so vile and idiotic about gays, and rape, and women’s bodies that we thought this all may have been some kind of internet hoax. But then Clint Eastwood had his tortuous dialogue with an empty chair and babbled on about the good old cowboy days. Really? We thought Republicans were trying NOT to depict themselves as old white men. Eastwood has just made yet another election advertisement endorsing Romney/Ryan.

With these images of old White men, the Republican convention opened against the back-drop of the Republican “war on women.” They were supposedly set to re-claim women and their votes by telling us they love us. But it did not take long to realize that the women the Republicans are addressing are a very particular sort; and that their war continues against any female who is sexually active and thinks she has a right to make decisions about her own body.

Single young women, in particular, are under siege. Unmarried women are also.  Sexually active women of all ages are also targeted. Any female body that is sexually active and not domesticated within motherhood and traditional hetero-patriarchal family life is also fodder here; as are women of all colors. Poor women are also particular targets. In other words, almost all women—except those encompassed in their own anti-abortion rhetoric–are particularly targeted here.

So when Ann Romney in her convention speech told women that she loved them, we couldn’t help but wonder which women exactly she loved. Who’s left for her to love? And, of course, if Michelle Obama said that she loved women she would be accused of being a lesbian. But no matter. Ann told the audience that she salutes women. She said that she knows that women do not expect things to be easy; and that, because of this adversity, they know how to take care of themselves and their families. Ann Romney and the Republican party in general focuses on moms—women with families, who are married and define themselves as wives. And for Ann, moms—and wives–do not work outside the home. Of course this is an easy choice for her, as a multi-millionairess–but much less of a possibility for the millions of women who labor multiple jobs to make ends meet.

At the convention, most of the audience was white and the white women loved Ann. They saluted her back. And Condoleezza Rice was sitting near the front, clapping and smiling and approving—though she has no husband or children. What was Condi thinking, as she sat there clapping? It’s hard to believe that she could truly think she got where she is today by herself; without the civil rights movement, the women’s movements, and the bravery of the struggles of the Black women who came before her. Perhaps, she sat there clapping and celebrating U.S. “exceptionalism,” where she was born into segregated Alabama and grew up to be Secretary of State. She celebrated a country that does not care where you start but only cares where you are going. She believes we are a country of limitless horizons. It is all too amazing. Republicans seem to truly not approve of most women and yet Condi is their forceful mouthpiece at the convention. It is too strange: a Black woman defending a rich white man’s party.  It is enough to make you (almost) hopeless.

In this way, with Condi at the helm, female bodies are the coded rubric for a right-wing take-over of political discourse, once again. The Republicans have moved past (or through) neo-liberal domination. Instead, the right-wing Tea Party is now in charge—attempting to destroy the very idea of public responsibility, leaving most of us with the remnants of their mythic family. In the Tea Party world, there is to be no safety net, no assist, no help, no subsidy. If you fail, Paul Ryan is sure that you have not tried hard enough to succeed at your job, or to fend off your rapist—or whatever.

The Republicans say there is no “war on women” because they love some women, like Mitt loves Ann and his own mother too. Mitt talked about how his mother ran for the Senate, and spoke of his love for Ann who raised his boys, and then proudly noted how he appointed many women to work as part of his administration as Governor of Massachusetts. And, do not forget his binders filled with capable women. He praised “the sanctity of life” and the “institution of marriage” as God intended them to be, which is not gay. The hetero-patriarchal white family still dominates for Mitt. There is never much mention of “working moms”—whether they are gay, or straight, or bi. This is all a bit too worn and weary. Makes you love Hillary, even if you did not before.

Even if our view of gender may be more varied–as races become more mixed as well–the focus on the vagina or the uterus via “rape” keeps all females the same, and victimized. The G.O.P. both balks at and denies the changing lives of women, and simply restates the old. It has handed this election to the Democrats; if only the Democrats decide to take women’s lives, in all their new complexity and difficulty, seriously.  If Obama wants “the” women’s vote(s), he needs to woo us with serious policy: affordable and good day care at our work sites and elsewhere, affordable and accessible health care, the continued right to and access to abortion and contraceptives, the guarantee of equal pay. Commit to these ideas, Obama, and you have us. Hands down. It is repeatedly said that women don’t vote these issues. Really? It’s not like we’ve ever been given the chance to show that we would, and can.

It seems tragic that in 2012 that the narrative about our economy and families is so anachronistic. It is time to vote our interests even if we wish that the choices between Obama and Romney were bigger and better. So Sarah worked with other medical students to promote “Medical Students for Choice” at her medical school, so that abortion would be taught in their curriculum. Most medical schools no longer teach abortion procedures; a majority of counties in the U.S. no longer have any kind of abortion service or clinic; abortion is still legal but access is getting too rare. Yet we cannot let the Republic right-wing reduce its discourse about abortion to consider only cases of “rape.” Abortion–along with the right to choose–is not simply about rape. Because, if rape is involved, choice has already been taken out of the equation. Access to abortion is about maintaining bodily control, justice, and choice; regardless of whether the sex was desired, or not.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan and the larger right-wing anti-abortion movement et al need to be shut down—and get the elephant out of our wombs. This is a start at pushing towards a real democracy at home and abroad. Because the wars on women are mobilizing—from the Taliban to the Tea Party.

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