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Pregnancy, Politics and the Policing of Women’s Bodies

(Image: Pregnant woman via Shutterstock)

Standing in line at a DC coffee shop, I wonder if I will get a dirty look. I’m pregnant and I remember a friend who told me that she was once scolded by a fellow customer for having caffeine while pregnant. Another friend, a doctor and an avid runner, was pulled aside while running and asked if her doctor knew she was doing that. Still, bothersome moments like these barely scratch the surface of a grave truth in this country – women’s bodies are under constant control.

While pregnant, I have been amazed by the unsolicited advice that I get on a weekly basis about what to eat and not eat, how much sleep to get, whether or not to have sex, if I should carry my toddler who loves to say “up up, Mommy” and asks me to “twirl, twirl.” But I am lucky. I have not been drug tested in order to utilize a safety net program, nor have I been randomly drug tested while still in recovery in the maternity ward. I have not been jailed because I was in pain and used medication, nor have I been locked in a psychiatric ward because I refused treatment for gestational diabetes.

While the rights and dignity of pregnant women are further eroded, forced sterilization and laws that cap the number of children a woman can have if she uses public assistance continue a shameful history in this country of dictating who gets to add to their family. Indeed, lawmakers play a dangerous game when they think they should decide whether a woman becomes a parent, instead of ensuring that every woman can make her own decision based on what is best for her and her family. This is especially true when it comes to the decision to seek an abortion.

In recent years, hundreds of laws were introduced with the goal of making it harder and more expensive to get an abortion or closing clinics to shut off availability of care. Many of these restrictions make the news (hello, North Dakota) and cause a big uproar among advocates (think Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound law) and rightly so, but there are efforts that are just as widespread, but simply do not get the same attention – legislation that effectively withholds abortion care altogether.
Those politicians who don’t want abortion to be legal at all push bans that deny health care coverage of abortion in order to make it unaffordable. At the federal level, politicians have cut off care for women who use Medicaid or Medicare, as well as Medicare beneficiaries, federal employees and their dependents, Peace Corps volunteers, service members and their families, Native American women utilizing Indian Health Services, and women in federal prisons.
It is just as bad at the state level, where bills limiting insurance coverage have been advanced and enacted for years. Right now, 20 states deny abortion coverage for plans that will be offered through the state health insurance exchanges that will be launched in 2014 as part of the Affordable Care Act, including eight that ban coverage in all private insurance plans offered in that state. Eighteen states withhold abortion coverage in insurance plans for public employees. Thirty-five states deny women coverage through their state Medicaid program.
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story about how women are impacted by these attacks on affordable care. The fact is that these policies create unjust obstacles for women, especially low-income women, immigrant women and women of color, many of whom already face significant barriers to receiving high-quality care.
Even with all the talk about recession, sometimes it’s hard to get our heads around the fact that there are people working so hard to make ends meet, they really, truly can’t pull together money for an extra medical expense on their own. I know that I don’t want to live in a country or a state where a woman who needs an abortion has to face these kinds of obstacles in order to get the health care she needs.
I’m also not comfortable deciding for someone else whether she should be a parent or not. It is simply not our place to step into the personal lives and decisions of women and their families. And it is certainly not the place of our elected officials. The laws and policies that act to limit and legislate women’s lives are intrusive, but they are also insulting and dangerous. They punish women and push an agenda that is not in line with our values as a country.
Instead of judging women and limiting their reproductive health decisions, we should commit to improving health care for pregnant women and improving every woman’s ability to make the best decisions for her circumstances. That means we need laws and cultural conversations that respect pregnant women, make it easier for all women to raise their families in a safe and healthy environment, and provide health coverage for a full range of pregnancy-related care, including prenatal care, maternity care and abortion.
Women who are deciding whether and when to become parents or add to their families do not need political interference or judgment. They need the support of loved ones and the information and services to manage and protect their health and the health of their families.
This article is part of Strong Families Mama’s Day Our Way blog series. Strong Families is a national initiative led by Forward Together. Our goal is to change the way people think, act and talk about families.
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