Sensing, perhaps, that they are losing the public relations battle after Senate candidate Todd Akin's forehead-slapping views on "legitimate rape" and the female body's magical ability to guard against pregnancy, Republicans are trying now to focus on the "real" issues of the economy and jobs, which play to businessman Mitt Romney's strengths, rather than the "side issue" of reproductive rights. Birth control and abortion were non-topics at the recent Republican convention. The GOP argument, in the words of Florida attorney general Pat Bondi, is that women don't care about a party's stance on women's reproductive health: "What women care about are jobs, the economy, the unemployment rate." In this narrative, reproductive freedom is relevant only to special interest groups and liberals anxious to draw attention away from the "real" issues facing our nation.
But, as almost any woman could tell you, the Republican narrative splitting reproductive issues from the "real" issues of jobs and the economy does not square with the actual lives of women. What is more real for most women than the ability to control reproduction and to protect their sexual health? As Jessica Valenti pointed out in a recent piece in the Washington Post, most women spend about 25 years of their lives trying not to get pregnant. Even though women have lacked safe and effective means to control their fertility throughout history, many have managed to do so anyway, especially during times of economic hardship.
During the Great Depression, fertility ratios decreased significantly, despite the fact that the Comstock Laws made it difficult to get legal contraception and abortion was illegal throughout the United States. In her book on reproductive politics in the U.S., Rickie Solinger notes that 25-40 percent of all pregnancies were terminated in the 1930s, a steep increase over abortions in the 1920s. Had pollsters inquired, most of those women would undoubtedly also have said that "jobs" were their primary concern, but an unwanted pregnancy can be the tipping point for women and families facing economic hardship.
Even when times are good, a woman who faces multiple unwanted pregnancies during her child-bearing years has little time to appreciate the security that a burgeoning economy with good jobs promises. There is no factor that more strongly correlates with rising educational attainment and economic advancement among women than the new availability of birth control in the 1960s, along with access to safe and legal abortion since the 1960s and 1970s. For most women, contraception is our greatest health concern and expense during our childbearing years. Again, what is more "real" than that? Telling women that their health insurance will cover everything except birth control is like telling a diabetic that her health insurance will cover everything except insulin and the other necessities of diabetes care and then berating the patient when she becomes seriously ill from a lack of access to insulin.
Republicans try to make the argument that women are not members of a special group, interested only in reproductive issues; rather, they are individuals, concerned like all Americans about jobs and the economy. And yet ultimately, they have repeatedly shown their unwillingness to respect women as individuals who should control their own bodies. By way of marginalizing women's issues, Republicans, who ignored reproductive rights at their own convention, mocked Democrats for emphasizing its centrality in women's lives; as the always classy Ann Coulter tweeted during the Democratic Convention, "They're spicing things up with a live abortion on stage!" Yes, that's hilarious.
As Georgetown ethicist Rebecca Kukla points out, we do not want our bodies "understood solely in terms of reproductive function." But we cannot enjoy the same rights as other individuals — called men — without the ability to control when and if we bear children, and without the medical care that makes that possible. Without that control over our own bodies, we are no longer genuine rights-bearing individuals — which surely a party that purports to celebrate individualism as strongly as the Republican Party should understand.
Christine Adams is a professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Her teaching and research interests include family history and women's and gender history. She has written two books, "Poverty, Charity and Motherhood: Maternal Societies in Nineteenth-Century France" (University of Illinois Press, 2010) and "A Taste for Comfort and Status: A Bourgeois Family in Eighteenth-Century France" (Penn State Press, 2000). Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.