Workers Vanguard No. 997
2 March 2012
Bishops, Bigots and Birth Control
Obama Panders to Religious Reaction
For Free Abortion on Demand!
For Full, Free Access to Contraception!
The Catholic church’s campaign to oppose cost-free health insurance coverage for contraception for women employed in its universities and hospitals is a frontal attack on the rights that women gained in the wake of the social struggles for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. Cost has nothing to do with it. The same bishops who seek to achieve an exception to such coverage in the name of “religious freedom” cannot even obtain voluntary compliance from Catholics in this country, almost all of whom use effective birth control methods instead of Vatican roulette (the rhythm method).
The bishops quickly found allies from among the Republican candidates for the presidency—most notably Rick “Sanctorum,” who runs as an open proponent of Catholic theology. Joining in were the right-wing Christian fundamentalists who currently constitute the core of that party, as well as Orthodox Jewish rabbis. Santorum has now made the virtually unprecedented declaration that separation of church and state in the U.S. is not “absolute.” It needs to be noted that religious freedom in the U.S. is in fact based on the separation of church and state, not on the “freedom” of the clergy of whatever stripe to dictate their superstitious restraints on sexuality.
The attack on the availability of contraception is a part of the decades-long assault on women’s rights, centrally on the right to abortion that was supposedly guaranteed by the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. It is an attack on the very way women live today. Ninety-nine percent of women with sexual experience have used contraception, with 69 percent of those using highly effective measures like the Pill. At the same time, almost half of the first births in this country are to unmarried women, and not a small number of those are unplanned. Additionally, the Pill is the treatment of choice for a variety of medical conditions.
The Catholic hierarchy’s attack on contraception is one of myriad attempts to enjoin the sexual freedom of women and maintain them as breeding stock. Pending in over a dozen states are “personhood” bills that define human life as beginning at conception and, thus, threaten legalized abortion and contraception. Many states already have laws severely limiting access to abortion, with some requiring ultrasounds for any woman seeking the procedure. Planned Parenthood has been under siege for the “crimes” of making contraception available and providing some access to abortion to those without means.
But all is not well for the apostles of religious fundamentalism. A personhood bill that seemed a shoo-in was recently tabled in Virginia, and a similar bill failed last year in a statewide referendum in Mississippi, normally a reliable outpost of racial and religious reaction. Recently the Susan G. Komen foundation, which is dedicated to eradicating breast cancer, reversed its decision to end its donations to Planned Parenthood following substantial public outcry and objections of some of its wealthy patrons.
The vast majority of women today are not about to accept being forced back into the pre-Pill 1950s, with its straitjacket of sexual “morality.” Nonetheless, the notion that consensual sexual activity no matter how it is wrapped or stimulated is a private affair and should be free of state interference is hardly as American as apple pie. Laws against contraception remained on the books in many states well after the Pill was available by prescription. Until 1965, it was illegal for married people in Connecticut to use birth control. It took seven more years for single people to legally use birth control in Massachusetts, and not only there. Bill Baird, a heroic fighter for women’s right to abortion and contraception, spent three months in jail in Massachusetts for giving a package of contraceptive foam and a condom to a Boston University student as a challenge to the law. Baird’s case later went to the Supreme Court and helped lay the basis for the right to privacy—the main legal argument behind Roe v. Wade (see “Fifty Years After the Pill: Still a Long Way to Go,” WV No. 968, 5 November 2010).
Democrats No Answer to Christian Right
The just outrage of most women over the fundamentalist barrage on their rights is likely to be reflected in the November presidential election in a manner that will not please the Republican candidate. As G.O.P. strategist Alex Castellanos told Maureen Dowd of the New York Times (25 February), “Republicans being against sex is not good. Sex is popular.” To be sure, at present the Republican primary scene has been peopled with seeming troglodytes, as exemplified by the quip from Rick Santorum’s wealthy benefactor that in the good old days cheap birth control consisted of “gals” putting an aspirin between their knees. Santorum’s war on sex moved Dowd to write three days earlier: “Rick Santorum has been called a latter-day Savonarola. That’s far too grand. He’s more like a small-town mullah.” (Girolamo Savonarola [1452-1498] was a Dominican monk who, as the leader of a Christian state in Florence, led mobs in burning books and crusaded against vice and frivolity.)
As they openly dish out bigotry and contempt for working people, women and minorities, the Republicans are making it easy for the Democrats to strike their pose as the last refuge for labor and the oppressed. It is to be expected that the feminists, along with the sellout labor bureaucracy, will do their bit for the re-election of the Democrat Obama as Commander-in-Chief of the capitalist order.
It should be recalled that it was not a Republican president but the Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) who hyped the virtues of Christian fundamentalism as a weapon to roll back the gains of the civil rights and other social struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. For America’s capitalist rulers, who had suffered a huge defeat at the hands of the Vietnamese workers and peasants, the radicalism associated with the 1960s was a dangerous bubble. Above all, they feared that a recurrence of social protest could spill over into an aroused labor movement.
To counter “permissiveness” and restore confidence in the U.S. ruling class, in the 1970s a major ideological assault was launched, aimed at instilling an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism, God and family, including the desirability of dying for one’s country. It was under the “born again” Carter that the Hyde Amendment cutting off federal funding of abortions for poor women was enacted, coinciding with a rollback of black rights.
Since that time, bourgeois politics under both the Democrats and Republicans have moved even farther to the right, and today Obama & Co. occupy ground once claimed by mainstream Republicans. As Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald put it, “Because Obama has governed as a centrist Republican, these GOP candidates are able to attack him as a leftist radical only by moving so far to the right in their rhetoric and policy prescriptions that they fall over the cliff of mainstream acceptability, or even basic sanity” (London Guardian, 27 December 2011).
In response to the bishops’ outrage at being supposedly forced to fund “sin,” Obama renegotiated the terms, leaving the women workers of Catholic affiliates to find contraception elsewhere, supposedly via insurance companies. The “compromise” is patently at the expense of the women workers involved. Yet it hasn’t silenced such opponents as the attorney generals of Texas, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma and South Carolina, who jointly filed a suit in a U.S. District Court seeking to block even the compromised requirement that insurance plans cover contraception.
During last April’s budget fight, the Republicans fought to ban federal funding for Planned Parenthood and to reinstate a ban on the District of Columbia using its own money to fund elective abortion through Medicaid. The first was temporarily set aside, but the Obama White House okayed the ban on D.C. funding for abortions, particularly sacrificing the rights and health of black women. In fact, the Democrats have ensured that for most of the last 20 years the ban was in effect. Clinton signed the ban into law six times, and Obama and the Democratic-controlled House and Senate upheld it in 2009. As we noted in our article on the D.C. ban: “In regard to abortion, the ‘pro-choice’ Democrats’ strategy has been to keep it safe and legal for the wealthy, but to hell with the poor and minorities” (WV No. 979, 29 April 2011).
And to hell with young people. In December, Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled the FDA when that agency approved the “morning-after” pill for over-the-counter sales to anyone, regardless of age. So now women younger than 17 must chase down a doctor immediately after intercourse and beg for a prescription. Obama claimed patriarchal privilege “as the father of two daughters” in justifying the ban, an obvious ploy to cater to Christian fundamentalist voters for this year’s elections. Above all, the Democrats want to avoid the “A-word” (abortion). Since Roe v. Wade, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, access to abortion has been rolled back to such an extent that nearly 90 percent of counties have no abortion facilities at all. On top of that, 36 states require minors to get parental consent.
Obama and the Democrats created a health “reform” package that insurance executive-turned-whistleblower Wendell Potter quipped might more aptly be called “The Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act.” In May 2009, speaking at the Notre Dame commencement, Obama proclaimed his support to a “sensible conscience clause” that would allow health care providers to withhold abortion or other services that conflicted with their religious beliefs. Forsaking any semblance of a genuine “public option” let alone the kind of “single-payer” system as exists in Canada and much of Europe, Obama also made clear that the plan would not cover “illegal” immigrants and their families and that no federal dollars would be used to fund abortions, in line with the reactionary Hyde Amendment.
People in this country—including immigrants—need free quality health care with no exceptions. Free abortion and contraception must be available to all, irrespective of age. These necessities will not be gained through playing the shell game by which the interests of workers and the oppressed are tied to the “lesser evil” Democratic Party of American capitalism. Such gains for women as have been wrested were not due to the electoral pressure politics of the bourgeois National Organization for Women but rather through mass struggle. What is needed is a fight to build a workers party based on the understanding that the working class shares no interests with its capitalist exploiters. Acting as a tribune of the people, a class-struggle workers party would champion the liberation of women, the emancipation of the black population from its race-caste oppression and the elimination of all social inequality in the fight for socialist revolution.
Capital, Church, Family: Unholy Trinity
The great French utopian socialist Charles Fourier observed: “Social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women” (The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier). Writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when priests were driven out of the churches and sometimes executed, Fourier would see in the U.S. today a profound retrogression. On a world scale, the counterrevolutionary overthrow of the October Revolution in the USSR in 1991-92 fed the bonfires of social reaction.
Religious fundamentalism is by no means restricted to the Islamic world. From Santorum’s obsession with sex and Satan to Obama’s pious quotations of Christian scripture at the National Prayer Breakfast—itself an annual affront to the separation of church and state—American bourgeois politics have been and continue to be increasingly saturated with God. This type of rampant religiosity is often a characteristic of decaying societies.
Religion—especially but not only the Roman Catholic church—is the strongest ideological force against birth control and abortion in its upholding of the sanctity of the family. Woman-hating strictures against contraception and abortion, poisonous bigotry against gays, witchhunting of “deviant” sex, relentless pressure on youth to somehow refrain from giving in to their raging hormones—all these emanate from and reinforce the institution of the family as well as religion, buttressing the rule of an exploiting class. As communists, we oppose attempts to fit human sexuality into legislated and decreed “norms.” We say: Government out of the bedroom! The guiding principle for sexual relations between people should be that of effective consent—that is, nothing more than mutual agreement and understanding as opposed to coercion. Defend the separation of church and state!
The family is not an immutable, timeless institution but rather a social relation subject to historical change. In his classic 1884 work The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels traced the centrality of the family back to its role in ensuring “legitimate heirs” for the patriarchal inheritance of property, which required women’s sexual monogamy and social subordination. The revolutionary overthrow of the imperialist-dominated world order by the proletariat will lay the material basis to free women from age-old family servitude and reorganize society in the interest of all. The social functions of the family—housework, child rearing, preparation of food, etc.—will be replaced by collectivized institutions.
Even under conditions of dire scarcity, imperialist invasion and civil war, the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky strove to implement such collectivization in the early Soviet workers state. It is the goal of the International Communist League to build Bolshevik–type workers parties around the world to lead the fight for new October Revolutions. As we wrote in “In Defense of Science and Technology” (WV No. 843, 4 March 2005): “Communism will elevate the standard of life for everyone to the highest possible level. By eliminating scarcity, poverty and want, communism will also eliminate the greatest driving force for the prevalence of religion and superstition—and the attendant backwardness, which defines the role of women as the producers of the next generation of working masses to be exploited.”