(WOMENSENEWS)–The end of Barack Obama’s first term as president will almost coincide with the 50th anniversary of the invention of the birth control pill.
The pill changed women’s lives, sexual relations and reproduction irrevocably. It was the beginning of one of the most significant social transformations of modern history. It was as important as the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution.
And, like all social transformation, it has been hotly contested; the site of an unfinished culture war.
Promotion of the pill–and a woman’s right to control her fertility–moved forward rapidly for the first 20 years, fueled by an engine known as feminism. Since then, for the past 20 years, it has been sidetracked by the religious right.
Now the question is what will happen under Obama?
So far he’s done a lot.
Obama has increased federal funds for family planning for low-income women and college students and made emergency contraception available to17 year olds, as well as to older women.
He has restored respect for the right of recipients of U.S. foreign assistance to participate in efforts to make abortion legal and available in their countries–using their own, not U.S. money.
He has fully funded the United Nations’ effort to provide family planning and maternal health services to women worldwide. And he promises that decisions about health will be based on science and the common good, not ideology. Hopefully that will lead to comprehensive, evidence-based sexuality education; a goal not yet achieved.
Those were easy baby steps though.
Tougher measures that must be tackled include the restoration of federal Medicaid funds for poor women seeking abortion–who have as much right to choose as other women–and lifting the restriction on the use of foreign aid for abortions in developing countries.
About 50,000 women a year die globally in botched abortion attempts and we must save their lives as well.
Obama has not yet indicated a willingness to stand up for these women and the choice movement is reluctant to insist that he do so.
We are rightly concerned that rolling back 20 years of neglect may be the most that can be accomplished–and we do not want to annoy the president.
However, all these legislative steps are only the prelude to completing the social and cultural transformation begun in 1961. The president needs to lead the cultural discourse regarding the link between women’s (and men’s) sexual and reproductive rights and their human rights.
Obama has taken several important and positive steps in this direction. First, he has insisted that he will listen to leaders on all sides of the cultural divide on issues of reproductive health. While he calls it a search for common ground and eschews a ‘culture war,’ he engages in cultural discourse.
In listening he has come to emphasize values that are important to both sides.
To those opposed to abortion, Obama stresses respect for life in an effort to avoid abortion–a goal that women also have.
At the same time, he upholds a modern human rights frame for abortion rights, one that not only trusts women as moral agents, but asserts that agency. In answer to a question at a recent press conference, the president said: ‘I think (women) are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a President of the United States–in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their clergy.’
There is some hope that such an approach can lead to social transformation.
It will require hard work by those of us who are committed to a world in which the focus is on human rights and individual freedom.
We must listen to those who disagree with us but also reject the pre-transformational model of moral decision making in which sex was something one paid for with unwanted pregnancy and birth, and assert a vision where sex is something that, when approached responsibly with concern for consequences and with justice for our partners, is a social good.
If the president can go that far, 50 years of cultural struggle will result in social transformation that makes women free.
Whether Obama, who is lauded as a transformational leader, along with those of us who supported him will fulfill the promise of that social transformation in the next four years is yet to be seen.
There would be a certain hubris in taking on the task, sort of like claiming one could end war forever.
But there is no accomplishment that a president could be more proud of than solidifying a vision of human relationships in which women were truly recognized as the moral subjects of their sexual and reproductive lives.
Such recognition would not only mean that there was no controversy when women decided to use contraception, but also none when she chooses to bring children into the world or to end a pregnancy in abortion.
It would also mean rape would no longer be tolerated, children would be provided for, child brides would not exist and women would not be stoned, burned, or otherwise tortured for seeking to be free.
Yes, achieving a woman’s right to control her fertility will make those other rights real.
The president, perhaps aware of how important reproductive rights are to all women’s rights, has taken the first practical steps. They are, however, steps that merely bring us closer to where we were 20 years ago. The road ahead is still unmarked.
Frances Kissling is a visiting scholar at the Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania, and the former president of Catholics for Choice.