CONSIDER THIS: Vitriolic Attacks on American Women

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By Ernest Corea* 

WASHINGTON DC - America's commemoration of International Women's Day (March 8) took place while unseemly demonstrations of gender bias, misogyny, crude insults, and efforts to limit women's access to health care were trundling along as well.

In some public references, these have been bundled together as a "war on women." The description has a touch of hyperbole, although it also fails to capture some significant aspects of what has been going on – and keeps going on .

As a large number of indigent families are affected by the "war on women" it encompasses "class warfare." Many of these poor families are from minority groups, so the inevitable question will arise: to what extent does racial prejudice play a role?  A strong element of partisan politics is at play as well.

Death Blow Strikes


An early shot was fired by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure (SGKCF) Foundation, an organization with a strong record of innovative programs supporting cancer research.

Planned Parenthood Federation (PPF) which also has an admirable record in support of women's health programs is a beneficiary of SGKCF grants. PPF is the major medical provider for 5 million women a year. Cancer screening is a critically important service provided by PPF clinics: Some 20 percent of American women would have visited a PPF clinic in their lifetime. Many poor women would have been excluded from cancer screening but for the services PPF provides.

Out of the blue, SGKCF announced that it would no longer provide grants to "organisations being investigated by local, state or federal authorities." Although the unexpected ban on grants was narrowly focused it was broad enough to encompass the work of Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida who, without discernible provocation, had opened an inquiry into PPF programs.

The inquiry provided SGKCF with a reason or excuse to impose its ban which excluded PPF clinics across the country from the funding which had supported its essential women's health programs. This was, in a very real sense, a death blow to the health of indigent women.

Public reaction was swift and unrelenting. Donors stepped up to offer funds that could partially compensate for what was lost by the ban. Cooperating organisations made it clear that their cooperation was not to be taken for granted. Individual protests cascaded. SKGCF bowed to the inevitable and withdrew the ban.

All-male Cast

The next encounter began with an ecclesiastical barrage. The Catholic hierarchy opposed a regulation planned by the Obama Administration requiring religious organisations and religion-based institutions (e.g. universities) to ensure that contraception was included in the health insurance programs they provided for their employees and students.

The arrangement was modified to place the responsibility on the insurance company concerned – and not the religion-based institution – for providing contraception to the insured who, lest we forget, pay part of the premiums for their coverage.

At that point, Congressman Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the Oversight and Government Spending committee in the House of Representatives, convened an attention-catching hearing on the issues.

The first group of witnesses that Issa's committee convened was an all-male cast: five men including a celibate Catholic bishop. None of them, obviously, had experienced the joy and the burden of pregnancy and motherhood. None of them could testify with real-life knowledge and understanding.

Sandra Fluke, a law student from Washington's Georgetown University, a highly regarded Catholic institution of Sandra Fluke's opening statement to Democratic Members of Congresshigher learning, offered to testify but Issa turned her down. He felt that her testimony would not be "appropriate." A woman as an "inappropriate witness" on women's health? That's a stretch, even for a Congressman.

Incensed, two representatives, Carolyn Maloney of New York and Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington DC, walked out of the hearing, with Maloney shouting out the pertinent question: "What I want to know is, where are the women?"

Tennis-ball Sized Cyst

Maloney and others held a congressional forum and invited Fluke to be their featured speaker.

She spoke passionately on contraception issues including the needs of women who required contraceptive medication for the treatment of conditions – some of them serious, or potentially serious – unconnected with family planning. This is available only if prescribed by a qualified medical practitioner.

Fluke recounted the experience of a fellow-student at Georgetown:

"For my friend and 20 percent of the women in her situation, she never got the insurance company to cover her prescription. Despite verifications of her illness from her doctor, her claim was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted birth control to prevent pregnancy. She's gay. So clearly polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy for her.

"After months paying over $100 out-of-pocket, she just couldn't afford her medication anymore, and she had to stop taking it. I learned about all of this when I walked out of a test and got a message from her that in the middle of the night in her final exam period she'd been in the emergency room. She'd been there all night in just terrible, excruciating pain. She wrote to me, 'It was so painful I woke up thinking I've been shot.'

"Without her taking the birth control medication, a massive cyst the size of a tennis ball had grown on her ovary. She had to have surgery to remove her entire ovary as a result."

There was more, but the point is made.

Beacon of Obscenity

For making this case, Fluke was insulted and humiliated on air by shock-jock Rush Limbaugh, a radio broadcaster who is said to have a following of several millions. He is a respected figure in Republican Party circles.

Limbaugh implied that Fluke required boundless access to contraception because she wanted to have unlimited sex, and that she wanted the taxpayers to pay for her sex by providing her with contraceptives. Based on this astounding charge, he called her a "slut" and a "prostitute." He claimed that her parents could not be proud of her.

Having explored the lower depths of repulsive speech, he decided to descend even further, suggesting that as compensation for experiencing taxpayer-funded sex, she should make sex videos and upload them so that taxpayers could view them. Limbaugh's inner sense of obscenity shone forth like a dry-wood blaze in a forest.

Subsequently, when the withdrawal of sponsoring advertising was rapidly climbing ever upwards, he apologised on air. The assumption that even the most disgusting, disgraceful, and destructive behavior can be wiped off the record by an apology makes no sense. An apology is indispensable, but does not eliminate the offending conduct or dilute its venomous intent. There is no legal plea, for instance, known as "not guilty by virtue of an apology."

Throughout her ordeal, Fluke conducted herself with the utmost dignity and self-control. President Obama, a legal scholar himself, phoned her to commiserate and say that her parents should be proud of her.

Judicial Intemperance

Not to be outdone by mere lay folk, a judge jumped into the maelstrom of vituperation. He attracted nationwide public attention when he shot out an email which directed a crude and despicable insult at Ann Dunham, Obama's late mother. She died of cancer in 1995.

As reported by John S. Adams of the Great Falls Tribune, the subject line of an email sent to friends by Chief US District Judge of Montana Richard Cebull (with an emphasis on the bull?) was A MOM's MEMORY. Cebull sent the email from his official courthouse email address on Feb. 20. The text reads as follow:

"Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.

"'A little boy said to his mother; 'Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white?'" the email joke reads. "His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!'." Cebull has since apologised to Obama.

Elsewhere, meanwhile, attempts to belittle women, curtail their rights, and reduce their access to health programs continue through innuendo, direct slight and proposed legislation. One such law would eliminate all federal funding for family planning programs. The liberal website MoveOn.org comments: "That would be family planning for humans. But Republican Dan Burton has a Bill to provide contraception for wild horses. You can't make this stuff up."

Consider This

That such developments take place in modern, innovative, science and technology oriented America, in the second decade of the 21st century, would be unbelievable if it were not true.

Every cloud, however ominous, is supposed to have a silver lining. So, consider this. The silver lining lies in the strong and continuing backlash against reprehensible language and conduct.

Many have spoken out, from Obama onwards. Some of the offending institutions and individuals involved continue to face the force of public wrath and the increasing rumble of internal breakdown. Sponsorship advertising has been withdrawn, resignations have occurred, events have had to be cancelled.

The most telling comment came in a 479-word letter from John J. DeGioia president of Georgetown University, to the Georgetown community. DeGioia said of Fluke: "one need not agree with her substantive position to support her right to respectful free expression.

"And yet, some of those who disagreed with her position — including Rush Limbaugh and commentators throughout the blogosphere and in various other media channels — responded with behavior that can only be described as misogynistic, vitriolic, and a misrepresentation of the position of our student."

DeGioia cautioned the student body that if the US allows "coarseness, anger – even hatred – to stand for civil discourse in America, we violate the sacred trust that has been handed down through the generations beginning with our Founders. The values that hold us together as a people require nothing less than eternal vigilance. This is our moment to stand for the values of civility in our engagement with one another.

Hope springs eternal.

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

Middle picture: Sandra Fluke's opening statement to Democratic Members of Congress
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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