Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Yes, the Proposed HHS Regulation Is Sexist

The Los Angeles Times has a good recap of a Health and Human Services regulation that’s bad news for women (Planned Parenthood has a petition here). The article points out what feminist bloggers have been saying all along: the rule wouldn’t just grant doctors the right to refuse to perform an abortion; it would allow doctors and nurse practitioners to refuse other treatments like birth control, emergency contraception, fertilization treatments, and many others.

While some have argued that there’s no harm in allowing doctors to exercise their right to freedom of religion (although this is technically already covered under the Civil Rights Act of 1964), it’s important to take a moment to examine the embedded sexism in this regulation, buried under layers of cultural “norms.” The legislation is targeted explicitly at women. Women are the ones that use the reproductive treatments outlined in this regulation. None of the treatments were specific to men. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg outlined in her dissent in the Gonzalez v. Carhart case, women simply can’t enjoy equal access to citizenship as long as they can’t control their reproduction.

So long as there are regulations or laws that specifically control or limit the rights of one gender and not the other, the legislation is unequal. The regulation is allowing doctors to deny treatment to women based on their sex, using religion as a defense (one also wonders why a doctor would become an OB-GYN if he or she opposed abortion and birth control). Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex lately, but many of the things we accept as cultural norms or based in religion are actually age-old notions of treating the woman as someone or something to be controlled.

Much of The Second Sex is devoted to outlining all the ways women are painted as the Other. They are either condescendingly thought of as less than human, incapable of achieving the plane of male thought, or elevated to some kind of superhuman inspiration for chastity and artistic inspiration. While this is certainly very centered on the gender question–after all, there have been many Others in society–it certainly points to all the double standards that women are subjected to.

By forcing women to stick to abstinence as means of birth control, women’s lives are restricted in ways that men’s just aren’t. The regulation doesn’t put restrictions on Viagra or fertility treatments for men. Even though it is framed as a religious rights issue, it is ultimately about controlling the reproductive lives of women. Ultimately, controlling women’s reproduction means controlling their freedom and equality as citizens.

Cross posted at Pushback.

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