The staggering victory of the Republican Party in the November 7 mid-term elections has stunned many Americans and sounded a warning to women around the world.
Everything women care about and need - from peace, to reproductive rights and health care, a safe and clean environment, and fundamental privacy - is now threatened by a Republican majority in the Congress, a Republican White House, and a soon-to-be Republican majority in the federal courts (and in the Supreme Court if, as anticipated, President George Bush gets to appoint one or two justices).
Why is a Republican brute majority so alarming? Because this is a traditionally conservative party and the Bush Administration has taken a strong stand against abortion; is pro-big business; has cut funding to government agencies working on women's issues; and for whom the welfare of women, children and the underprivileged is not a priority. Until now, the more liberal Democratic Party could rein in these tendencies somewhat, thanks to its majority in the Senate. But no more.
A record number of women ran for high-level office across the country in this election and in the words of one political pundit, "The girls went down in flames." The results do not alter the final number of women in Congress (13 per cent in the Senate and 14 per cent in the House). The problem is that Republican women often gained the seats that Democrats lost.
Perhaps the good news is that women candidates seem to have lost, not on the basis of their gender, but because of their affiliation with a Democratic Party that has disappointed its rank and file members. "What happened was not particularly good for Democrats, and what these women have in common is that they are all Democrats," said Roselyn O'Connell, President of the National Women's Political Caucus.
That may signal an emerging level playing field, although some analysts like to suggest that women still lack tough strategies that would make them more electable. In any event, the defeat of candidates like Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Jean Carnahan of Missouri (and the overwhelming victory of Republican Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina) is significant.
The failure of more women, and more Democrats, to be elected is linked to the overall disaster of the Republican landslide for women everywhere. Conservatives and the Christian Right have been waiting for this moment and they are gloating now, even though close election results do not signal a clear plurality in terms of their agenda. Women's reproductive health, rights, and privacy are at the heart of this administration's misogyny, which was made clear when the administration reneged on the US commitment of $34 million to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) several months ago.
Those funds, approved by both houses of Congress, would have provided family planning services and HIV/AIDS education as well as helped to end female genital mutilation in African countries. As UNFPA Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid pointed out, the investment of $34 million could have helped
prevent 2 million unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 self-induced abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths, and 77,000 infant and child deaths. Bush said $34 million was unaffordable, but he had no problem with a $135 million allocation to preach abstinence as sex education in this country.
Now the US government is poised to sabotage one of the most forward-thinking events and documents of our time, namely the UN accord on world population. In 1994, when 179 nations met in Cairo to consider the relationship of reproductive health to world poverty and emerged with a Plan of Action signed by all 179 of them, little did anyone imagine that less than 10 years later an American president would play political games by threatening to remove US endorsement of the agreement.
Playing to the extreme right, and aligning the US with Muslim fundamentalists and The Vatican, President Bush has done nothing short of desecrating an international accord that the US helped to craft. An accord that offers real hope for stabilizing the world's population, alleviating poverty, and empowering women through reproductive rights, basic education, and adequate healthcare so that they can have healthy families and be economically viable.
The US, in an attempt to backtrack on language already agreed upon, wants to remove such terminology as "reproductive health services" and "reproductive rights" because like the uninformed Christian right, they think those terms are code for abortion.
Robert Sheer, writing in Salon.com, hit the nail on the head: "This administration is marked by a foreign policy driven primarily by a domestic agenda. To seek the votes of the right-to-life caucus by mucking about with the excruciatingly complex and difficult task of reining in world population is as dangerous in its effect as it is tawdry in its motive...We are not God, and our power must not be abused."
Of course, the far right is thrilled. Here is Steve Mosher, president of the Population Research Institute, an arm of Human Life International, an anti-choice organization: "This week's remarkable developments mark an important step toward a family-friendly foreign policy...Reproductive rights was intended to be a Trojan Horse for foisting the West's radical feminism on every nation gullible enough to have signed the [Cairo] Plan of Action."
But the trouble doesn't stop there. The Bush Administration is also trying to withdraw a promised $3 million earmarked for a World Health Organization reproductive health program that includes research on RU-486, the so-called 'abortion pill'.
According to State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher, the US "can't support any activity that supports abortion as a method of family planning or that motivates or coerces people into practicing abortion, so we would not use our money to support RU-486 research." That policy represents an attempt to broaden application of the Kemp-Kasten law, which prohibits US tax money from being spent on international family planning programs that support or promote abortion.
Alarmed by this latest coup, Reps. Nita Lowy and Carolyn Maloney were among those who sent a letter to the State Department on November 7, asking them to explain themselves, and to assure them that other programs such as UNICEF and the UN Development Fund (UNDP) would not suffer similar fates.
It gets worse. Several Republican House members, led by New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, have criticized the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for giving an extension grant of $65 million to the New York-based Population Council so that it can continue its research on HIV/AIDS prevention. The letter advocates extending the global gag rule; more importantly, it questions USAID's HIV/AIDS prevention strategy and promotes an abstinence-only approach, denigrating the essential role of condom promotion in HIV prevention programs.
One can only wonder if these sexual Neanderthals realize that all sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis, are on the rise dramatically all over the world.
Then there is the matter of Dr W David Hager, the President's choice to chair the Food and Drug Administration's Reproductive Health Drugs Advisory Committee. Dr Hager, whom 'Time' magazine has called "scantily credentialed", is an obstetrician/gynaecologist whose books include "As Jesus Cared For Women: Restoring Women Then and Now." He has been known to recommend Scripture and prayer for Premenstrual Syndrome, and he refuses to prescribe birth control for unmarried women.
With close ties to the Christian Medical Association and the anti-choice group, Focus on the Family, it is feared that one of Dr Hager's main goals would be to overturn the use of RU-486, or mifepristone, and to halt studies on the drug's beneficial impact on such women's diseases as breast and uterine cancers, fibroid tumors, and clinical depression.
'San Francisco Chronicle' columnist Jane Ganahl recently reminded her readers about frogs in hot water. Put a frog in boiling water, she said, and he'll jump out. But turn up the heat slowly, and a frog will boil to death, unaware that his environment is gradually becoming deadly. Clearly, the water is starting to simmer all over America. Women here and elsewhere are about to be cooked. Shouldn't we turn up the heat in other quarters and vigorously stir the pot before it's too late?
Elayne Clift, formerly a women's health educator and advocate, is a writer in Saxtons River, VT, USA.