This Begins at Home: The Impact of American Political Discourse on Global Gender Equality

| February 2, 2013 | 0 Comments

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the HCGHR. 


Image Credit: See Wah.

The topic of gender and global health is in vogue. For an American, it is exciting to work abroad, exhilarating to work for change where there exists low hanging fruit (advocating for women to have the right to divorce, own land, drive, obtain an education).

It is easy for a Westerner to condemn laws or practices that affect women living in different lands, subjected to extremes that patently subordinate them (stoning women for perceived adultery, condoning rape that occurs within a relationship, banishing women that suffer fistulas during childbirth).

The upcoming print edition of the HCGHR contemplates the status of gender and global health, yet we fall short if we fail to examine our own laws. If we seek to wholly understand the health of women worldwide, we cannot make the all-too-frequent error of drawing a blunt line between global and domestic policy. Our laws affect the health and wellbeing of men and women both near and far. So we might inquire – does gender in the United States (U.S.) still affect one’s health?

Increasingly, evangelicals, who interpret the rule of God as the rule of law, are gaining a larger platform on the public stage, infiltrating state and federal governments with bills that fly in the face of equal protection. If equal pay and comprehensive women’s health are topics of true controversy in 2012, are American women not still second-class citizens to the men who, for thousands of years, have shed light on their God’s respective teachings?

An example: in the 2012 election, two Senate candidates publicly declared that women subjected to rape and consequently with child are experiencing a gift from God, or in the alternative, have biological means of “rejecting” a fertilized egg [1][2]. Yes, these men are ignorant, but what does it say about Americans that the Republican Party appointed them to run for one of the highest offices in the land? A slip of the tongue is inevitable, yet such grossly uninformed statements are not gaffes but rather red flags, signifying that a powerful component of the Grand Old Party believes that our elected officials can allow religious teachings to supersede Constitutional principles.

Another: this summer, an Oklahoma county judge ruled against a transgender woman seeking a name change, quoting Genesis, as if it were a source of the law he is entrusted to apply: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” [3]. Yes, we may call this man an extremist, but when did we decide religion may guide judicial reasoning?

And a few more: in the past year, legislators have introduced bills or enacted laws that would either eliminate all women’s health clinics in a state (under the guise of building code or licensure violations) [4][5], subject women to vaginally invasive and medically unnecessary ultrasounds (or images / illustrations of fetal development) [6][7] before obtaining a legal abortion [8], prohibit pre-viability abortions that would cause “fetal pain” [9], or include patently false information about abortion in sexual education curricula [10]. Yes, some of these efforts have failed in the legislature or in the courts, but why are our elected officials meddling with a fundamental component of women’s healthcare? One might respond that fetal protection laws have value independent of women – an assertion that is debatable. Yet these laws have nothing to do with fetal health, and intentionally so: our Constitution prohibits fetal rights from trumping those of a pregnant woman [11].

Yet today, 10 states unconstitutionally require that a woman obtain a second opinion, certifying that an abortion is medically necessary [12]. Others require that a physician be present for the administration of a medical abortion – despite the fact that it can be safely carried out by a nurse, and the country is increasingly attempting to reduce unnecessary demand for physician time [13]. 19 states mandate that a woman seek counseling on either fetal pain or the negative psychological effects she may endure from controlling her body [14]. And in all states, women subjected to rape and seeking emergency contraception must present identification and verbally request the drug over a pharmaceutical counter, even though the FDA has ruled it as safe as Tylenol [15].

Are these undue burdens on a woman’s right to control her body? The answer to that would depend on the emotional and fiscal resources of the woman. Can she separate scientifically baseless notions of fetal pain from medical fact? Can she remind herself that only she knows whether an abortion or a pregnancy would cause her more psychological harm? Can she choose a pharmacy where she is anonymous? Can she even get to one within 72 hours of her rape?

Regardless of the resilience and resourcefulness of the woman in question, one thing is clear: these laws are in place not to protect her health, but to control her, whether expressly or implicitly. In other words, these laws have one purpose: to make it easier for her to bear a child than not, regardless of the circumstances that led to her disposition.

How different is this type of control over women from those written into the foreign laws we condemn? Requiring a woman to obtain written spousal consent for a tubal ligation – even when she has ruptured her uterus giving birth for the fourth time [16] – seems barbaric if a spouse is not present and/or refuses to concede. Yet the practice is based on the same logic: a woman does not have autonomy over her reproductive capacity.

Where basic aspects of society, including access to healthcare, are divided by gender, law is either lacking or enacted by those interpreting the word of God or Allah. We are lucky that we live under the rule of law. But are we leading by example when we allow religion to define women’s rights?

We cannot separate global and domestic health if we want to see real and lasting change in the world. Gender equality has to start at home.  


  1. Todd Akin, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Missouri, “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” (Aug. 19, 2012).
  2. Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Indiana “I think that even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” (Oct. 23, 2012).
  3. District Judge Bill Graves, Order issued Aug. 30, 2012.
  4. Act No. 499, Public Acts of 2012, Dec. 28, 2012, Effective March 31, 2013, Enrolled HB 5711, Michigan 96th Legislature, Regular Session of 2012; Regulations for Licensure of Abortion Facilities, Virginia Regulatory Town Hall, 2011.
  5. Mississippi Legislature 2012 Regular Session, HB 1390, An Act to Amend Section 41-75-1, Mississippi Code of 1972, to Require that all Physicians Who Perform Abortions in Abortion Facilities Must have Admitting Privileges at a local Hospital and must be Board Certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology; and for Related Purposes.
  6. Act No. 499, Public Acts of 2012, Dec. 28, 2012, Effective March 31, 2013, Enrolled HB 5711, Michigan 96th Legislature, Regular Session of 2012.
  7. Guttmacher Institute, State Policies in Brief: Requirements for Ultrasound, Jan. 1, 2013 (Louisiana, North Carolina, Texas).
  8. Texas HB 15, An Act Relating to Informed Consent to an Abortion.
  9. Arizona HB 2036.
  10. US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform – Minority Staff Special Investigations Division, The Content of Federally Funded Abstinence-Only Education Programs, Prepared for Representative Henry A. Waxman, Dec. 2004.
  11. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).
  12. Guttmacher Institute, State Policies in Brief: State Policies on Later Abortions, Jan. 1, 2013.
  13. Act No. 499, Public Acts of 2012, Dec. 28, 2012, Effective March 31, 2013, Enrolled HB 5711, Michigan 96th Legislature, Regular Session of 2012.
  14. Rachel Benson Gold & Elizabeth Nash, State Abortion Counseling Policies and the Fundamental Principles of Informed Consent, Guttmacher Institute (2007).
  15. Editorial, Sell Plan B over the Counter, Despite Understandable Qualms, Boston Globe, Jan. 16, 2012.
  16. Personal Communication, Emergency Surgeon, Medecins Sans Frontieres.

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