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The Complicated Realm of Women’s Health

Rebecca Traister wrote a scathing piece [1]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 [2], 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.

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#1 Comment By philadelphialawyer On August 2, 2014 @ 8:58 am

When dealing with people who routinely call abortion “baby murder” (which is not only inflammatory and emotionalist, but is a conclusory assertion as well, as it is the law which determines what is murder and what is not), it seems a bit one sided to label their opponents “unfair” for using a term like “women’s health” either selectively (by focusing mainly on reproductive issues) or in a way that “obscures” the ethical issues. Discourse about abortion is super heated (on all sides), and complaining about this rhetorical devise, a fairly mild one at that, alone and in isolation, seems an odd (as in convenient and partisan) place to stick.

#2 Comment By Mont D. Law On August 2, 2014 @ 10:00 am

This is, if you’ll pardon the colloquialism, crap.

It assumes that Democrats don’t care about or fight for osteoporosis or breast cancer or seniors living alone who don’t have enough money for health care. It assumes that Republican policies don’t negatively effect women who need healthcare as you are defining it. The refusal of Republican states to expand Medicaid pretty much puts paid to that.

#3 Comment By Egypt Steve On August 2, 2014 @ 11:06 am

If you zoom out, I think the larger problem is the following. Liberals have one demand: everyone gets health care, to the same high standard of other advanced countries, which everywhere else includes those reproductive services that involve prescription drugs and medical procedures.

Conservatives, however, have two demands: (1) the health care system should be private, not public; and (2) no one in the private sector should have to do anything they don’t want to, particularly if they can plausibly show some religious objection.

I think it’s time for conservatives to choose what they really want. If it is more important for them to keep health delivery in the private sector, then conservatives will have to accept that some of those involved in the delivery of health services are going to have to do things they don’t want to do, because otherwise, health services in the U.S. will be sub-standard.

Or, if conservatives think it’s more important that people be shielded from making choices in the realm of health care that they object to morally, then conservatives need to accept that a completely modern health care delivery system can only be administered publicly, as it is everywhere else in the developed world.

#4 Comment By Patrick On August 2, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

There is all sorts of nuance, but in electoral politics, support for abortion is really moving the votes. And this goes for the political left as much as the political right. You can talk about the issues surrounding abortion all you like, but nobody is going to the polls saying, “we’re for IVF, but not for The Pill” or “this country needs to do better at homebirths” or “I don’t care about abortion per se, but we need to make sure these women get counseling”. Nobody votes like that: it is abortion, abortion, abortion.

#5 Comment By stef On August 2, 2014 @ 1:18 pm

For one thing, it’s “breech birth,” not “breach birth.”

For another, there are no “abortifacient medicines” under discussion here. There are pills and implants, shots and IUDs. Even if they do somewhere, very rarely along the line end up destroying a fertilized egg, they are not “abortions.”

A fertilized egg is not a pregnancy. No pregnancy, no abortion.

And yes, women’s health is about both contraception *and* abortion.

#6 Comment By Mikey On August 2, 2014 @ 2:50 pm

This article is perfectly logical but when it comes to the way the vast majority of the pro-abortion crowd treat this issue, logic is irrelevant. And for the foreseeable future, Democrats will continue to do everything they can to obfuscate and distort what is actually pretty straight-forward: a member of the human race is created at conception. What is needed is a child to say that the emperor has no clothes whenever the blatantly obvious is pushed under the rug.

How an entire party can ceaselessly engage in such mendacity over such a fundamentally important issue without having their heads explode is hard to understand. I guess there are no limits to one’s capacity for self-deception.

#7 Comment By Daniel (not Larison) On August 2, 2014 @ 5:33 pm

I guess the fundamental question is “what is health”? If “health”, by definition, is to promote a body to function as it was designed (or how it evolved) then abortion and contraception should not be
Considered “health care” in that they directly work against the body’s natural function.

If, however, “healthcare” means to make my body operate how I choose to have it operate (subject to the limitations of current science and technology), then the meaning is much wider–abortion, contraception, male and female sterilization, etc should be included. But are there limits? What of elective cosmetic surgery? Sex change operations?

What does “health care” mean? What should it mean?

#8 Comment By cka2nd On August 2, 2014 @ 6:42 pm

“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 [abortion].”

Except, Ms. Olmstead, that most conservatives, or at least those who are outspoken, get elected and make public policy, don’t just oppose abortion. They oppose and legislate against many types of birth control. They oppose comprehensive sex education (we can debate what the content of “comprehensive” sex ed should be, but “abstinence-only” is not it). They have even come out against vaccination against the human papillomavirus.

My mother thinks that abortion is murder but is pro-choice because she refuses to impose her belief about this particular issue on others. I’ve escorted women into abortion clinics past sidewalk counselors who opposed the death penalty. I know that there are scumbags and butchers running a few of the clinics. I’ve worked with women who organized around a panoply of women’s health issues and still defended clinics from Operation Rescue. I’d be more than happy to have an honest, reasonable discussion about the ethics of abortion and reproductive health care with conservatives but it would be nice if they policed their own comrades when they denigrate women who use birth control, lie about how some methods of birth control work, exaggerate the extent of depression among women who’ve had abortions (relief is far more common) and call supporters of abortion murderers.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 2, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

All of health care is complex. And the more we earn abut the human body, the more complex we realize it is.

#10 Comment By Rebecca Trotter On August 2, 2014 @ 7:27 pm

This article might carry some weight if it took the real issues women face seriously. Which given the fictional category of “abortive birth control medicines”, is clearly not the case. I am pro-life because I believe life is to be welcomed, not just by individual women and families, but by society as a whole. But I cannot and do not support or associate with the sort of bogus “pro-life”, anti-woman fiction presented here. Tell you what – give me an accurate, fair explanation of why IUDs matter so much and I might be able to take your claims to care about life seriously. Otherwise I hope Republicans do keep up their war on women. I can’t wait to see the sort of jackwagons who think “abortion inducing birth control” is an actual thing run out of power.

#11 Comment By Jonny On August 2, 2014 @ 10:29 pm

So what you’re saying is that the period from fertilization through gestation until birth is difficult to objectively determine precisely when and where it becomes immoral to interfere with the human life-cycle? And that individuals are better suited to make the moral judgment than institutions with coercive capabilities like employers and/or governments?

#12 Comment By cornel lencar On August 3, 2014 @ 4:07 pm

Abortion is not a health issue, except when it is necessary for medical reasons. Otherwise it is a personal and social issue. Women that end up getting pregnant by accident and have no intention of raising a child with the sperm donor, or even having their genetic material mixed with the sperm donor should be at liberty to choose to abort. Also, women that are in no material position to raise a child should be able to get abortions. The fact that someone else would be willing to adopt such a child should have any bearing. The unwilling mother shouldn’t be forced to do a service for free and with a great inconvenience and even with a certain degree of risk. An undeveloped foetus is a blank slate – except for what evolution has built in as instincts – with potential. To ascribe more than that to a foetus is a bit delusional. If the conservatives would provide for the unwilling future mothers as well as for their unwanted children, it would be a more acceptable argument – although still infringing on woman’s free will and liberty, but that is not the case.

#13 Comment By Uncle Billy On August 4, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

It would help if Conservative Republicans spoke out strongly and indeed, came out in writing as a matter of policy that they are for contraception. Don’t let medieval fanatics like Rick Santorum speak for us. Don’t let the few kooks who oppose contraception set policy. This is a deal breaker and if the GOP intends to win national elections, they had better change.

#14 Comment By Leslie On August 4, 2014 @ 8:43 pm

I’m pro-choice, but I’m not pro-abortion, in the sense that I want it to become something that isn’t needed anymore.

The problem is that almost everyone who labels themselves pro-life is also against sex ed and birth control, and in denial that many teens are having sex.

Perhaps this author is elusive unicorn who doesn’t oppose anything except abortion, but in real life, I have yet to meet anyone like that.

#15 Comment By Leslie On August 4, 2014 @ 8:45 pm

Also, as the Irish abortion case where the woman died shows, a “medically necessary” abortion is way too open for debate. Do you want those decisions made based on the religious beliefs of the ER doctor? I don’t.

#16 Comment By IntelliWriter On August 4, 2014 @ 11:06 pm

The anti-choice movement would have us believe that every life is precious unless he’s Honduran at the border begging to get into the United States. THOSE children, already born, are illegal, aliens to be spit on, screamed at, kicked out. The hypocrisy, the disconnect is so stunning as to be positively jarring for those of us on the other side of this issue.

With seven billion people, a plurality living in poverty, it’s hard to see every life as “precious.” And it’s equally difficult to argue that a fertilized egg has more rights than a woman. But these are precisely the arguments the forces of patriarchy would have us believe. Thinking people simply don’t buy it.