Katha Pollitt | The Nation

Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

When 'Pro-Life' Kills

Remember when Joe Walsh, the Republican congressman from Illinois, claimed a ban on abortion needs no exception to save the life of the woman? “With modern science and technology, you can’t find one instance,” he said, in which a woman’s life could have been saved by abortion. Well, how about this instance: In Ireland, where abortion is strictly forbidden, doctors allowed 32-year-old Savita Halapannavar to die of septicemia after days of horrendous suffering, because her 17-week-old fetus, which she was in the process of miscarrying, still had a heartbeat. Never mind that there was no way this fetus could have survived. Never mind that technically, Ireland’s abortion ban permits an exception when there is a “real and substantial risk to the life of the mother.” The doctors let Savita die, as she and her husband pleaded for them to end the pregnancy. “This is a Catholic country,” one doctor explained. The always cogent and knowledgeable Jodi Jacobson explains it all here and here.

If you think it couldn’t happen in the United States, you haven’t been paying attention. After all, in 2010, Sister Margaret McBride, an administrator in a Catholic Hospital in Phoenix, was fired and excommunicated after she approved a first-trimester abortion for a woman with life-threatening pulmonary hypertension. What happens in Catholic hospitals when there’s no Sister Margaret willing to risk the bishops’ wrath? With conscience clauses expanding to cover not just individual doctors but whole hospitals, a pregnant woman may find her care is being dictated not by standard health protocols but by a religion she doesn’t even follow. Savita was a Hindu, after all. What about her conscience?

Who is more valuable, a living woman or a dying fetus? The Catholic Church has given its answer, and Savita Halapannavar is dead. If this was Islam, we’d never hear the end of it.

Follow developments, including notifications about protests and demonstrations, at #savita.

Help Irish women now: Every year thousands of Irish women travel to the UK for abortion care. Between travel, accommodations, lost wages and childcare, the expense can be prohibitive. The Abortion Support Network offers help with funding, information, and a place to stay. Honor Savita’s memory by donating what you can.

Like this article? Support this journalism with a $5 donation now.

Savita's death sends a strong message to women: "You are nothing." Check out Jessica Valenti's take here

To get all the latest stories from The Nation's feminist writers like Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, Melissa Harris-Perry and others delivered straight to your inbox, sign up for our weekly Feminist Roundup email.

My Chat With Mayor Bloomberg

Wanting to do something to help in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I went down to Gotham Hall in midtown Manhattan on Friday and, along with a motley crowd of other New Yorkers, donated blood. (I had never done this before, due to a phobia I apparently shared with lots of people, including, it turns out, several of my friends. Did you know only 2 percent of the population has ever donated blood? If you belong to the other 98 percent, I can testify that it’s not painful or scary, everyone there will be very nice to you, and afterwards you will feel brave and useful. You may even get a reward. This particular drive happened to be cosponsored by the Yankees, and I was given a voucher for two tickets to a Yankees game. In my case this was like giving a cat a box of chocolates, but still).

Guess who else was there giving blood? Mayor Bloomberg! Afterwards, he joined the table where I was sitting having juice and cookies with an actor, a police auxiliary, a student and a young woman who works for Common Ground, a group which houses homeless people. The mayor had only one cookie, I noticed, which he broke into pieces first. (This is how high-profile politicians maintain their iconic appearance. Have you noticed that, unlike regular people, they actually look just like their photographs? Not taking that second cookie is part of how they do that.) Despite everything the city is currently going through, the mayor was in an affable mood. I ended up chatting with him, and he said some interesting things.

On the cancellation of the marathon: No, it cannot be rescheduled, and calling it off was really too bad because “it would have brought in a lot of money—a lot of money.” Why the cancelation? “A few people were going to go after the sponsors.” I asked him who the “few people” were, but he just repeated what he’d said.

On Sandy: Electricity coming back in lower Manhattan by tonight or tomorrow! Subways getting back to normal. (Both predictions were accurate. Still, I thought it was notable that he put such a calm and low-key spin on what so many New Yorkers see as a huge ongoing humanitarian crisis, with tens of thousands without food or safe housing).

On NYC politics: “New York is a one-party state. The same thing is true in New York City.” Only a Democrat can win the mayoralty. True, Bloomberg himself won as a Republican but “I spent my own money, which no one else has. And even then it was tough!” 

On his Obama endorsement: He endorsed Obama “not because I’m thrilled with him, but to me, choice, gay rights, the environment are the real issues, more important than economics. I spoke to him last night, and I told him, ‘Don’t make any mistake, my criticism of your economic policies still stands.’” 

On the election: It’s very close. “I would bet twenty-five cents that Obama would win. I wouldn’t bet fifty.” (The mayor is clearly not getting his gambling tips from Nate Silver, who has had Obama as the favorite since June, and currently gives him four chances in five of victory.) He thinks Hurricane Sandy benefited the president, because he was on TV all the time—and for free! He said he thinks Obama will win the Electoral College, but not the popular vote. He pooh-poohed the possibility that such a split would lead to a 2000-like crisis. Anyway, that’s the Constitution, and you certainly wouldn’t want to call a constitutional convention to change it, because “all your freedoms could be blown.”

On the NYC Board of Elections: Those people are completely incompetent! They “disenfranchise thousands of people.”

What’s next for the mayor: He’ll spend his time “working on influencing the things I care about—guns, choice, gay rights.” Not NYC politics. Ex-mayors don’t get involved in the next administration, he noted, which is something he appreciates about Rudy Giuliani, who he thought was a very good mayor (and a Republican, see above, but never mind).

Looking on the bright side: Staten Island and the Rockaways are in ruins, but the city is on track to have the lowest murder rate ever. This year it should be only around 400. Basically, you’re safe “except for drug dealers and domestic violence.” I dunno, something a little off there.

On The Nation: He asked how subscriptions were holding up, and although I actually have no idea, I told him we were doing fine, especially with our fine expanded website that has brought us so many new readers. If Romney won, I said, our subscriptions would go through the roof, but even so, we didn’t support him, which was very self-sacrificing of us. He laughed. I think sincerely.

You can watch part of my chat with Mayor Bloomberg in this video shot by CUNY Graduate School of Journalism student and multimedia journalist Matt Surrusco.

And here is old-school British comedian Tony Hancock in his hilarious 1961 sketch “the Blood Donor”:

For more on Bloomberg's Obama endorsement, check out John Nichols on the New York City mayor's climate concerns

The 'New York Times' Misses the Mark on Inequality, Marriage

Do we really need a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times to tell us that a woman with a college degree and a good solid marriage is better off than a college dropout raising three kids alone? In “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’,” Jason DeParle profiled Jessica Schairer and Chris Faulkner, two white women from conventional church-going Midwestern middle-class families whose life trajectory looked much the same when they graduated high school and set out for college. Jessica, though, got pregnant by her freshman-year boyfriend and was persuaded by him to drop out and start a family. Now she’s raising their children in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by herself, on one income (just under $25,000 for a full time job as assistant director of a daycare center) and food stamps.

Meanwhile, Chris, her boss at the daycare center, did everything “by the book” and in the right order: college, marriage, kids. Now Chris has a combined household income of $95,000 a year, with plenty of money to spend on her sons’ sports and extracurricular activities, to say nothing of a loving, involved dad to share the parenting, while Jessica is exhausted, lonely, and can barely afford generic breakfast cereal, let alone Boy Scout Camp for her troubled son. Yes, yes, is the takeaway: inequality is increasing and good jobs are hard to find, but “what most separates” the two women “is not the impact of globalization on their wages but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin.”

Well, if only we could clone Kevin—or maybe put great big Good Guy and Bad Guy signs on young men so that naïve college girls could tell which slacker boys are exploitive louts and which ones just need a nudge to become prime husband material. (Kevin went through a layabout stage but reformed because he wanted to marry Chris. “Marriage, in other words, can help make men marriageable.”) DeParle seems to think getting married transforms people, and maybe sometimes it does—but the lightbulb has to want to change. If marriage turned men into Kevins, there wouldn’t be so much divorce. Let’s say Jessica had gotten her boyfriend to marry her as they originally discussed—and she stayed with him for seven years and three kids, so she clearly tried to make it happen (“I wanted him to love me,” she says—what a world of sadness in those words!)—he would still have been a nogoodnik who rarely worked, lived off Jessica and his mother, and had little to do with the kids even when they all lived together. She would be long divorced by now. Her only other serious boyfriend, whom she dated for a year before letting him move in to her kids’ great delight, had to be removed after six months by the police. I don’t mean to be discouraging here, but maybe there was never going to be a Kevin for Jessica. Maybe there aren’t enough Kevins to go around, because of a whole range of developments over several decades, from the decline of good union jobs to our penchant for putting staggering numbers of men in prison.

DeParle mentions positively Charles Murray’s contention that single motherhood is a “values” issue, not an economic one. Murray means working-class and lower-middle-class white people have abandoned traditional family values (they’re becoming like—oh no!—black people) but you can just as well see Jessica as having too many of those values: she rejected abortion, she stuck by her man, she tried too hard to make a family. If we really want women like Jessica to avoid early childbearing and single motherhood, we have to stop promoting outmoded ideas about sex and gender: abstinence-only sex ed, shame that leads to inconsistent use of birth control, stigmatizing abortion, woman’s worth depending on keeping a man, “fixing” the relationship as woman’s responsibility, motherhood as women’s primary purpose in life. “I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” Jessica says. That’s a very American value right there: if you screw up in your early 20s, you—and your children—are on your own for life.

What would we do if we wanted to help Jessica and her kids, the millions like them, and the millions at risk of becoming them? I was struck by how completely she was thrown back on her own resources: she went to William Penn University, which costs $20,000 a year and has a freshman retention rate of only 55 percent—maybe she and her boyfriend fell through cracks that shouldn’t have been there. She gets no child support, not even a token amount—which is really outrageous, because even if her kids’ father makes very little, I’ll bet he has beer and cigarettes and girlfriends. She has church, but seemingly no help from her parents, and no helpful network of friends.

Her son has Asperger’s—where are the programs for him? Kids’ extracurriculars and camps cost too much for her, although we know they help learning and development—why aren’t they free? If she leaves her too-expensive neighborhood, her kids will be in a worse school—why? Believe it or not, most Western industrialized countries do a far better job than we do of giving kids a decent childhood and of sustaining their mother too. It does not have to be that if you can’t afford to live in the right neighborhood, your children get a bad education. That is a social and political decision that we have made.

And then there is Jessica’s job. Although she earned a degree from community college and is a highly regarded employee, she is still on an hourly wage of only $12.35. She punches in and out, and she gets no paid days off—even when she was recovering from an operation for cervical cancer. When she took a day off to chaperon a school field day, she lost a day’s pay. Message to Anne-Marie Slaughter: this is how we treat “family balance” in the regular world of work, and this is how we treat skilled, experienced management-level employees in the childcare field. Taking care of children is women’s work, after all, and women are supposed to have Kevins, not family-size paychecks. Why does it seem like a reasonable policy suggestion to tell Jessica she needs a husband, and pie in the sky to say she needs a union? Or a national day care system like the one in France, where teachers are well-paid, with benefits?

Jessica Schairer is doing the best she can. In fact, she is pretty heroic. It’s the rest of us that are falling short.

Nora Ephron: Writer, Filmmaker, Feminist, Wit

Nora Ephron poses for a photo at her home in New York, Wednesday, Nov. 3, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)

Nora Ephron died on Tuesday. It sounds silly to say so, but I had no idea she was anything like 71 (not old, as she told Charlie Rose—old is 80. But still). She wrote two bestselling books about aging, but to me she was ageless—a brilliant, elegant, hilarious woman at the top of her creative powers since forever—since before I used to proofread her Esquire column, back in the early ’70s, which was definitely the high point of that job.

As a writer and a filmmaker, she was charming, acerbic, shrewd and hilarious. She was honest about things women often keep quiet about. She wrote about having small breasts and wishing she didn’t. She gave the last word on fake orgasms in the immortal scene of Meg Ryan in the deli in When Harry Met Sally. In a triumphant example of making literary lemonade out of a big fat extra-bitter lemon, she wrote Heartburn, a deliciously vengeful roman à clef about the breakup of her marriage to Carl Bernstein (the husband “was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind” and left the heroine for a woman who looked “like a giraffe, with big feet”), sprinkled it with recipes (she might have been the first writer to do this) and saw herself played in the movies by Meryl Streep. In the New York Times, where her obit was front-page news, you can see a photo of the real-life pain that produced the barbed wit: Nora at a party at Tavern on the Green, looking sad and pensive, as behind her Carl lifts a wineglass while an unidentified woman perches on his lap.

Nora Ephron wrote about her own life and women’s lives in a way that was passionate and brave and also very, very funny. Her success, indeed her very existence disproved so many canards—women not funny? Movies about women can’t succeed? Rom-coms must humiliate the female lead? I love it that Julie and Julia used cooking as a way to talk about finding one’s passion for meaningful work, for mastery and challenge and expertise. When is that quest for the work one is meant to do in the world presented as something for women? When is the accommodating spouse the man? When do we see the work and life of one woman nourishing the work and life of another, as Julia Child inspires the young blogger Julie Powell? Some criticize Ephron’s movies as fantasies for the comfy classes, but  there was more to them that that: they were clever, urbane, worldly-wise and put women at the center—which in today’s Hollywood is practically a revolutionary act.  And what’s wrong, anyway, with the fantasy of running a sweet independent bookstore like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail? That happens to be my own personal daydream. Besides, movies are all about fantasies, and when the fantasy is in men’s heads (I am a pudgy layabout, but beautiful women adore me! Ooh look, it’s Batman!), that’s supposed to be what America is all about. As Ephron pithily said, for the men who run Hollywood, “A movie about a woman’s cure for cancer is less interesting than a movie about a man with a hangnail.”

Nora wrote that as a girl she wanted to be the only woman at the table of wits, like Dorothy Parker, but she was no queen bee: her life was full of women friends and colleagues. “Nora was as interested in other people as she was herself interesting,” the novelist Meg Wolitzer wrote me in an e-mail. “She was a real force in the world, and a great friend.” Still, professionally she was a feminist in a man’s world—two men’s worlds, actually, journalism and Hollywood. Maybe that was what produced her way of getting right to the point: neither world has a big attention span for ladybiz. In  a roundup of responses to the question “Who Gets to Be a Feminist?” that kicked off Slate’s DoubleX blog, she wrote, “I know that I'm supposed to write 500 words on this subject, but it seems much simpler: You can't call yourself a feminist if you don't believe in the right to abortion.” Bada-bing! (How prolix my own answer, by comparison.) In a 1996 speech she told the graduates of her own alma mater, Wellesley, to be “not the victim of your life but the heroine.”

In every way, Nora Ephron was the heroine of her life. That’s feminism.

Score So Far at the University of Missouri: Books 0, Football Coach $2.7 Million

Disturbing news comes from Ned Stuckey-French, an old friend who directs the program in publishing and editing at Florida State University: on May 24, new University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced he was shutting down the University's press and laying off its staff of ten. As Ned notes, the press, perhaps best known for publishing the collected works of Langston Hughes, cost the university $400,000 a year. The head football coach's salary? $2.7 million. Because you can always find the money for the things you really want.

Ned's book The American Essay in the American Century was published by the University of Missouri Press last year. Here's his take:

Wolfe, a former software company president with no experience in academics, was named president last December. He has acknowledged that he made his decision without visiting the press, talking to its employees, consulting with faculty, or looking for any new donors to help support it. Authors with books on the spring 2013 list have been told their contracts are being cancelled, never mind that this may include the tenure books of junior faculty, thereby derailing their careers.

In one interview, Wolfe compared the situation to an independent store going bankrupt and a Walmart moving in. The same products are sold, he explained, but Walmart has a better business model.

The press, which was founded 54 years ago, has published about 2,000 titles for both scholars and the general reader, everything from a biography of St. Louis Cardinals’s Hall of Famer Stan Musial to the Collected Works of Langston Hughes. It has also published the letters and autobiography of favorite son Harry Truman, and now Missourians and others have decided to “give ’em hell.”

Authors, teachers, librarians, Missouri alums, and readers from across the state of Missouri and the country have voiced their outrage. In the short time since Wolfe’s announcement, a “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook page has attracted over 1700 followers and over 2500 people have signed an online petition in support of the press. Articles about the massive reaction to the closing have appeared already in Chronicle of Higher EducationPublishers WeeklyInside Higher EdSt. Louis Post-DispatchKansas City Star and the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune.

Scores of supporters have shared the letters they’ve written to Wolfe and the University’s Board of Curators. The authors make it clear that when they are supporting the press they are supporting not just Missouri books and authors, but also debate, scholarship, and the preservation of a broader cultural past.

Letters of support have come in from scholars as far afield as Louisiana and Belgium praising the press’s publication of the collected work of German philosopher Eric Voegelin. Distinguished Mark Twain scholars Tom Quirk and John Bird wrote to bemoan the damage that the closing of the press’s Mark Twain and His Circle series will do to Twain scholarship. All ten of the editors of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes issued a statement explaining that such work “contributes to the larger, ongoing project among scholars of African American literature to recover texts by black American writers that have been historically marginalized from the American literary canon. This large-scale process of textual recovery and publication, begun on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement when students and scholars were advocating for representation of African American literature, history, and culture in American universities, is truly one of academe’s most important success stories. Without the work of scholars engaged in this project, African American literary studies in the academy simply would not exist.”

Many critics have questioned the priorities of a university that shuts down its press to save (according to the University’s press release) a $400,000 annual subsidy, while paying its head football coach $2.7 million each year. They point out that Missouri will now be the only university in the Southeastern Conference (its athletic conference) that does not have a university press.

President Wolfe’s spokesperson, Jennifer Hollingshead, said that comparing the press’s subsidy to the football coach’s salary makes no sense.

It’s like “comparing apples and bowling balls,” she said.

Of course, you can compare any two things—a university press and Walmart, for instance. And apples, we know, are natural, various, and the source of humanity’s knowledge, while bowling balls are uniform, unyielding and used to knock things over.

If you’d like to support the efforts to save the University of Missouri Press, go to the “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook site or sign the online petition.

Update on Bei Bei Shuai: Bad News From Indiana

Bei Bei Shuai. (AP Photo/Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department)

Bad news came from Indiana on May 11. The state Supreme Court has refused to review charges of attempted feticide and murder against Bei Bei Shuai. Just before Christmas 2010, Shuai, who was thirty-three weeks pregnant, attempted to kill herself by consuming rat poison after her boyfriend, father of the baby, abruptly announced he was married and abandoned her to return to his family. Rushed to the hospital, she had a Caesarean section, but her newborn daughter died after a few days of life. (Here’s my column on the case.) Despite amicus briefs from eighty respected experts and relevant medical and social organizations—the state of Indiana, for reasons best known to itself, will do its best to send Shuai to prison. Potential sentence: forty-five to sixty-five years. The only good news is that after spending 435 days in jail, Shuai is now out on bail.

The message to women is clear: you are criminally liable to the state for your conduct during pregnancy, even if you are mentally ill, emotionally disturbed, or whatever you want to call the extreme psychological state in which people try to kill themselves after receiving a terrible life-upending blow. Isn’t that what the coroner used to say: someone took his own life “while the balance of his mind was disturbed”? Suicide by pregnant women is not rare; it is, in fact, the fifth leading cause of death for them.

To call what Shuai did murder seems to overlook the fact that she was trying to kill herself. But this prosecution is unfortunately in line with a national trend of criminalizing the behavior of pregnant women whether through drug use, self-abortion—even, as in one case, falling down the stairs.

The state law under which Shuai is charged was passed in 1979, as part of a post-Roe wave of “unborn victims of violence” laws that made the fetus a separate victim in crimes against pregnant women that caused her to miscarry or die—for example, attacks by muggers or abusive partners. Pushed by abortion opponents as part of their strategy of building up the legal “personhood” of the fetus, it nonetheless seemed like a good idea to a lot of well-meaning people: shouldn’t there be some acknowledgment that assaulting a woman and causing her to miscarry was a special kind of awful? According to Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, which has taken on Shuai’s case, the legislative record clearly shows that lawmakers did not intend for the Indiana law to target pregnant women themselves. But that is what is happening.

Abortion opponents insist that nothing could be farther from their minds.

As Father Frank Pavone, head of Priests for Life, put it: “The pro-life movement is not out to punish women. Our goal, instead, is to stop child-killing. What would throwing women in jail do to accomplish that goal?”

Will the abortion opponents who claim to want only to protect women speak up for Bei Bei Shuai?

What you can do:

Sign the petition to Free Bei Bei Shuai.

Donate to National Advocates for Pregnant Women and help fund Shuai’s defense.

Watch a video of Bei Bei Shuai speaking about her case here.

Read my column about Bei Bei Shuai.

Feminists: Time to Stand With S.E. Cupp

Earlier this spring, Rush Limbaugh called Sandra Fluke a “slut” for arguing that contraception should be covered by health insurance. This week, Larry Flynt PhotoShopped a picture of conservative pundit S.E. Cupp to look like she had a penis in her mouth and published it in Hustler as “satire’—Cupp wants to defund Planned Parenthood, you see. No? I didn’t either. This degrading image has nothing to do with political satire and everything to do with wanting to put an outspoken woman in her place—on her knees with a dick in her mouth to shut her up. It’s a pornographic version of “Iron my shirt” and “Make me a sammich.”

Hustler may not be a beacon of the liberal media, as conservatives are gleefully claiming—but it’s all too maddeningly true that misogyny can be found all over the political spectrum, and needs to be denounced, by both men and women, wherever it appears. When it comes to women exercising their right to participate in public debate, we are all Sandra Fluke, and we are all S.E. Cupp as well.

What you can do:

Sign The Women’s Media Center statement of solidarity with Cupp, e-mail it to your friends, and post it on your Facebook page.

Tweet your support at #IStandWithSECupp.

Let the media—left, right, center—know that the crude sexualization of women who voice their opinions in public is not “satire.” It’s misogyny.

Wisconsin GOP Legislators Go After Single Mothers

If you had any doubt that Republicans have an even bigger anti-woman agenda than their love of compulsory vaginal probes might suggest, consider Wisconsin’s Senate Bill 507.

Co-sponsored by two GOP state legislators, Senator Glenn Grothman and Representative Don Pridemore, it directs the state to prepare educational materials that blame “nonmarital parenthood” for child abuse and neglect and “emphasize the role of fathers in the primary prevention” of same. Don’t be fooled by that gender-neutral abstraction “parenthood.” This bill is clearly aimed at shaming and blaming single mothers. “Fathers” after all prevent harm to children, so logically the only parents left to cause it are... yes, those unmentionable women who have the babies without a wedding ring to show for it. You might think that even in Wisconsin it takes two to tango down the aisle, but not according to Senator Grothman, who says, "There's been a huge change over the last 30 years, and a lot of that change has been the choice of the women."

Maybe, but a lot of it isn’t. It’s not as if men are eager for shotgun weddings either. 

Pridemore goes farther. Women lucky enough to have landed a husband should stay with them, even if those men are violent. What should battered wives do? Love their husbands more! "If they can re-find those reasons and get back to why they got married in the first place it might help,” Pridemore advises. Because nothing says “prevention of child abuse and neglect” like wife beating. 

The best response I’ve seen to Pridemore’s marital counsel is this modest proposal, which was forwarded to a feminist list:

From: Caroline H.

Sent: Fri 3/23/2012 11:40 AM

To: Rep. Pridemore 

Subject: In response to your comment about divorce in case of abuse

Mr. Pridemore -

I would like to make a deal with you. I propose we live together (I'll even relocate to Wisconsin!) for a year in an abusive relationship. I'll beat the shit out of you on a regular basis, verbally assault you, make you live in extreme fear, break down any shred of self-worth you might have, all that good stuff. After 12 months, we can both reevaluate our positions on the issue.

Granted, you don't know me well enough to "love me," thus giving you happy thoughts to call on when I'm beating you violently, but let's see what we can work out. What do you say? :)


Caroline H.

Arlington, Virginia

Lessons From Limbaugh

In testimony she was barred from giving at Darrell Issa’s all-male hearing, Sandra Fluke told the story of a fellow student at Georgetown law, a lesbian who, because of Catholic strictures, was denied insurance coverage for birth control pills needed to control her ovarian cysts. Unable to afford the pill herself, the woman eventually had to have an ovary removed, with serious consequences to her health and fertility. Please note: this woman’s tragic story is not about nymphomaniacal “co-eds.” Nor were Fluke’s other examples: a woman with suspected endometriosis, a rape victim who assumed Georgetown wouldn’t pay for treatment and a married couple who couldn’t afford contraception. Fluke did mention the humiliating experience of one woman, who discovered at the pharmacy that her insurance wouldn’t pay for birth control and who had to leave empty-handed because she couldn’t afford to pay out of pocket. Maybe she was the hot babe. Fluke said nothing about her own contraceptive needs or her own sex life. No matter. By now you surely know how Rush Limbaugh played the story:

“What does it say about the college co-ed,” said Limbaugh, “who goes before a Congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” Limbaugh suggests the women who want the pill should have to make porn videos of themselves and post them online. “So Miss Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal: If we are going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”

Limbaugh says disgusting hate-filled things about women all the time. His fans think it’s hilarious. The media insiders think it’s naïve and boring to complain: that’s just the way Rush rolls. Slate’s Dave Weigel, for example, points out helpfully that Rush is “a private citizen who hasn’t endorsed any presidential candidate,” so it’s unfair for the “Democratic media complex” to attack him for this bit of “classic Rush, sort of.” (Apparently it’s no big deal for Rush to smear his vile viciousness all over Sandra Fluke, a private citizen.) Maybe the Republican primary debates, in which candidates compete for the titles like Most Opposed to Plan B for Rape Victims, have woken people up, because Rush’s attack on Fluke has drawn fire—a wave of outrage from feminists, liberal columnists and bloggers, including petitions to his sponsors, several of whom have pulled their ads. Even President Obama got involved, with a phone call to Fluke expressing support. Rush issued a half-hearted self-serving apology: “In the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize.” Rick Santorum, last seen blaming birth control for rising rates of single motherhood, commented on CNN, “He’s being absurd but that’s you know, an entertainer can be absurd.” Mitt Romney was no knight in shining armor either: “I’ll just say this, which is, it’s not the language I would have used.”

Meanwhile, the wingnut media has doubled and tripled down. Bill O’Reilly: “You want me to give you my hard-earned money so you can have sex?” Pam Geller: By all accounts she is banging it five times a day. She sounds more like a prostitute to me. She must have an gyno bill to choke a horse (pun intended). Calling this whore a slut was a softball.“ Ace of Spades: “A shiftless rent-a-cooch from East Whoreville.” Jawa Report posted a photo supposedly of Fluke with a “Semen Demon” tattoo above her butt.

What do we learn from this story besides that Limbaugh apparently believes you have to take an additional pill every time you have sex, like, um, the Viagra pills he was found with when he returned from a Dominican vacation? (The Catholic church has no problem with covering boner pills, by the way, and they are routinely covered by insurance.) We learn that there is no point even bothering to point out that many women take the pill for non-contraceptive reasons—not only will the bishops will still do their best to keep women from it, misogynists like Limbaugh won’t even notice. They don’t know anything about ladyparts—Cysts? Endometriosis? —and they don’t care. They don’t care either that almost all women use some form of birth control at some point—wives, mothers, women who may not even like sex. Even lesbians! When the topic is anything remotely connected to female sexuality, every woman is a ho, a prostitute, a slutty-slut-slut, from a teenage virgin who needs to control her acne to a tired and put-upon 40-year-old mother of five. Even the feminazis! Those slutwalkers were really on to something.

Komen's Ambiguous Apology

The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation must have been totally unprepared for the firestorm provoked by its announcement that it was severing its long relationship with Planned Parenthood, which for at least five years had been receiving grants to provide low-income women with breast exams and mammogram referrals. Komen showed itself to be both dishonest and ridiculous: there was its initial long silence over the decision, followed by a flurry of flimsy and inconsistent explanations—first it was that Planned Parenthood was being investigated by Representative Cliff Stearns; then it was a change in criteria for funding. And what PR genius advised it to childishly delete negative comments on its Facebook page? Result: Planned Parenthood was deluged with donations to keep its breast care services going, including a $250,000 matching grant from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; twenty-two senators signed a critical statement; there were resignations among staffers and open rebellion among volunteers. Andrea Mitchell’s interview with Nancy Brinker on MSNBC was as close to open distaste as that very polite journalist ever gets. Mitchell is herself a breast cancer survivor, and the expression on her face as she questioned Brinker was as if she were steeling herself to pick up a dead mouse.

The massive show of prochoice strength worked. Friday morning Komen released a statement apologizing for its decision and acknowledging the unfairness of cutting off PP because of the Stearns investigation: “We will amend the criteria to make clear that disqualifying investigations must be criminal and conclusive in nature and not political. That is what is right and fair.” (Forget for the moment that Brinker denied the investigation had anything to do with the ban on PP). This is excellent news: Komen has in essence admitted that the Stearns probe is politically motivated, which must sting recently hired senior VP for public policy Karen Handel, who publicly favored defunding PP when she ran as a Palin-endorsed candidate in the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary.

But the rest of the statement is less clear. It continues:

We will continue to fund existing grants, including those of Planned Parenthood, and preserve their eligibility to apply for future grants, while maintaining the ability of our affiliates to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities.

This has widely been taken to mean Komen has backed down completely, i.e., will return to making grants to PP. But look more closely: that is not what it says. Komen says only that it will fund “existing grants”—that means, it will fund grants it has already formally agreed to make. Well, it is legally required to do that, isn’t it? It can’t rescind a grant on the basis of a rule made after the grant was offered. The original banning always referred to the future, and as to that, Komen says only that PP can apply for funding, not that Komen will continue to make grants to it as it has for many years. Nothing prevents Komen from altering its criteria in ways designed to exclude PP—for example, as Brinker suggested to Mitchell, deciding against funding breast care outside of mammogram centers.

And what about the bit about allowing affiliates “to make funding decisions that meet the needs of their communities?” Does that mean affiliates will be free to refuse to support PP, setting the stage for state and local anti-choice takeover efforts? It’s all rather unclear, and much too soon to declare victory and go home. It could mean a lesson well learned—but it could be just spin. After all, Handel, whoever hired her and whoever approved the original ban on PP are still there.

Nonetheless, this is a real win for pro-choicers. We hear so much anti-choice propaganda, we may not always remember that, actually, Planned Parenthood is not sketchy and controversial out there in mainstream America. It is beloved. Beloved. Note the relief- and gratitude-saturated testimonies like the ones collected practically overnight by the social media activist Deanna Zandt at the Tumblr site Planned Parenthood Saved Me. And it is beloved most of all by women who care a lot about women’s health—among whom Komen volunteers figure prominently. Breast cancer activism began as a feminist cause, after all: the initial impetus, back when Komen was founded in 1982, was the silence and shame surrounding the disease, the lack of research funding and the general sexism pervading treatment. Those are all feminist issues, and were structured as such in public discourse at the time. It was like Our Bodies, Ourselves in action.

Komen miscalculated by thinking its base cares only about breast cancer: in fact, those women in pink t-shirts and sneakers, raising their thousands upon thousands of dollars a year for breast cancer research, understand quite well that women’s health means more than tumor-free breasts. If Komen understood that but thought—and maybe still thinks—it can deceive those activists, or gradually shed them and acquire a whole other, equally dedicated, base of anti-choicers, it will dwindle and die. Anti-choicers are not interested in breast cancer activism; they’re interested in stopping abortion. They proved that by their eagerness to deprive of breast care women for whom PP was the only available option.

How things now stand: by Friday afternoon, PP was reporting that it has raised $3,000,000 since the Komen story broke. Meanwhile, just in time for February, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Komen is partnering with Discount Gun Sales, a Seattle distributor, to market a pink handgun. Because nothing says “pro-life” like a Walther P-22 Hope Edition.

Syndicate content