Rebecca Traister wrote a scathing piece for The New Republic, condemning Republicans’ egregious views on reproductive liberty and women’s health. She specifically lambasts Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway, who, according to a recent New York Times article, advised conservative candidates to “push back” when Democrats used the term “women’s health,” adding that “Women’s health issues are osteoporosis or breast cancer or seniors living alone who don’t have enough money for health care.”
Traister takes issue with this faulty definition. “When it comes to the complicated functioning of bodies and lives, procedures and prescriptions do not exist in vacuums, they are connected to a million other procedures and prescriptions… and they all add up to women’s health,” she writes.
Traister is right to see something off with Conway’s definition: reproductive health is an essential part of women’s health, and I strongly doubt most Republicans or conservatives would deny that—nor, I think, would they take issue with most examples Traister gives of reproductive health: cysts, endometriosis, pap smears, infertility, miscarriages, breach birth, or “a freaking yeast infection,” even.
But Conway (I would imagine) was specifically targeting the way Democrats use the term “women’s health” to describe abortion. And this is the real question, the one that Traister doesn’t really ask in her article: whether abortion and abortifacients, specifically, constitute “reproductive health.” Traister accuses conservatives of being reductionist and exclusive in their definition of women’s health, for putting “reproductive organs in a different basket from the rest of the human body.” But of course, what she’s really identifying is the way in which most conservatives put abortion—and abortive birth control medicines—in a different basket from the rest of reproductive health.
Many conservatives have no problems with other birth control medications. Many conservative parents have used IVF in order to have children. Even conservatives who object, on religious grounds, to all prescriptive birth control, wouldn’t deny that these issues of reproductive health are essential parts of women’s health and need to be talked about. Most acknowledge that it’s a complicated debate, important to consider and research with care.
Sadly, Traister and other pro-abortion advocates frustratingly skew the pro-life (or “anti-abortion”) position. They suggest that women who oppose abortion hate “women’s choice.” But this is also putting people and positions in erroneous baskets: what of women who endorse the important education of women’s reproductive health, who strive to support and counsel other women in their reproductive choices, who want to take good care of their bodies—yet who also believe that abortion is wrong? That certain (or all) birth control is wrong? It would be odd to tell these women they hate their bodies, that they are suffering from gender-driven false consciousness.
Rather, it would seem that these women have a different understanding of their bodies, and their purpose. To tell them their understanding of their bodies is wrong is to deny the seriousness of the ethical questions they posit. It is unfair for liberals to say conservative women oppose any and all realms of reproductive health, just because they oppose this very controversial aspect of it. Indeed, putting abortion unequivocally in the pro-women’s-health box neglects to admit that abortion can also have a negative effect on women’s health, from procedural complications to depression and suicidal thoughts.
As Traister herself says, these issues are “complicated”—“they’re all part of a larger web that you can’t smooth over or obscure.” But whereas she is referring to the vast swath of health issues that are part of women’s health, we can also apply those very words the ethical and religious issues that are integral to this debate. Those issues shouldn’t be smoothed over or obscured, either.