Work and pleasure having sent me to the US for a while, I spent last week stocking up on all the essentials of civilised life that are unaccountably hard to find in the land of the free: tea bags, antibiotics and a small arsenal of hormonal and emergency contraception. The latter is less a reflection of how lucky I expect to get over here than a mark of refusal to risk interference in my uterine arrangements by any health authority in the US, where the usual public discourse around a woman’s right to choose makes Nadine Dorries look like Vera Drake.
On 8 November, the state of Mississippi voted No to a proposal (see Michael Brooks, Observations, 14 November) that would have granted blastocysts “personhood” rights equivalent to those of a living, breathing human being with a functioning brain and nervous system – in effect outlawing not only abortion, but also many forms of birth control, including the IUD, hormonal contraception and the “morning after” pill. A campaign spearheaded by the group Personhood USA seeks to write into federal law the hypothesis that human life begins at the moment of conception, and that the rights of four-celled prehumans trump the rights of women.
The intricate game of denying health care to women with unplanned pregnancies and forcing them to carry those pregnancies to term has long been the stuff on which political careers are built at state level. In many districts of the US, abortion is now legal in name only. With the “personhood” initiative, however, the stakes are raised still further, conjuring the very real possibility that women’s rights could be rolled back to the 1940s and ensuring that, for women and girls, sex once again becomes a risky business.
What is stunning about the abortion debate in the US is not just the savagery of its disregard for the “personhood” of female citizens, but the cynical way in which elected representatives exploit what has become a national hysteria over abortion for political capital. In the US, a politician’s stance on abortion rights is often a make-or-break matter with voters. It is no accident that so many of the states where Personhood USA expects to get its measures on to the ballot next year are the same key swing states – Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Ohio – that voted for George W Bush in 2004 but declared for Barack Obama in 2008.
Attacking contraception, abortion and any other hard-won provisions to ensure female sexual equality has come to replace coherent economic and political discussion in the US. This is a tactic developed in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians across the English-speaking world sought to play to the perceived prejudices of voters to whom they had little else to offer.
Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, has proposed cutting off federal funds to Planned Parenthood, which provides birth control and other health services to millions of low-income women.
Instead of offering any sort of vision for a future for the US, conservatives are reverting to attacking vulnerable women and minorities. These new culture wars are a clear signal that neoliberalism is fast running out of ideas.