Are women equal under the law?

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The Raucous Birth Control Debate

When I was in my 20s, I was adamantly non-feminist. I considered myself equal to any man. I had control of my reproductive health. I could vote, hold office, play sports and saw no point in fighting those old battles. Boy was that naïve. I still consider myself equal to any man. I realize now, however, that much of the world does not agree. And rather than progressing towards more equality, as a country we seem to be moving towards less.

Here we are over a decade into the 21st century and we are once again arguing about a woman’s right to manage her own health. We’re arguing about birth control. Partly because of the political and economic dynamics of our time, the issue is more heated than ever. Wedge issues like this re-surface with every election cycle. From a dollars and cents perspective, who wants to pay for medications that 98% of the female population utilizes for years at a time?  Birth control is an expensive proposition for any institution.

Economics aside, I would contend that the birth control debate is not about birth control, or even one’s religious beliefs. No, this debate is about whether women are full citizens with all of the rights and privileges as men – including the right to make their own health care choices.

Are women equal to men under the law? Do we have the right to pursue health, happiness and liberty as we see fit?  Do we have the right to religious freedom?  Or per the current brouhaha, are we a special class of citizen with only some of the rights conferred to the male citizenry?

If the current discussions are any indication, there are many among us that believe that women’s rights are alienable and superseded by the rights of religious institutions or political expediency. How else does one explain the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings  on women’s health that included no women, but highlighted the male hierarchy of congressional and religious power?  How else does one explain the conservative punditry’s fealty to the male view of women’s health (adroitly portrayed by John Stewart’s Vagina Ideologues ). How else does one explain the utter lack of women, even conservative women, present in these discussions about women’s health?

Maybe these events can be chalked up to the election year machinations of feckless politicians; maybe it is just a power play, positioning one party over the other; we can hope…

I worry, however, that as these conversations continue and the voices of women are denied, the prevailing discourse that women’s health and self-determination are matters of religious conscience and governmental intrusion, will become more and more entrenched. The line between election year politicking and reality is blurring quickly. These debates are defining not only who can speak about women’s health, but which topics are acceptable; only men and only reproduction.

As a woman and a fierce advocate for women’s health research, I find the current trends dangerously recursive.  No, these discussions are not about birth control or even religious freedoms. These issues aren’t even about liberal versus conservative or left versus right, though often framed as such. These discussions are about whether women are equal citizens with all the rights and privileges accorded. Do we have the right to make and manage our own health care decisions?  If the current discourse continues, the answer is trending towards no, women are not equal.

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Chandler Marrs, PhD

Chandler Marrs MS, MA, PhD spent the last dozen years in women’s health research with a focus on steroid neuroendocrinology and mental health. She has published and presented several articles on her findings. As a graduate student, she founded and directed the UNLV Maternal Health Lab, mentoring dozens of students while directing clinical and Internet-based research. Post graduate, she continued at UNLV as an adjunct faculty member, teaching advanced undergraduate psychopharmacology and health psychology (stress endocrinology). Dr. Marrs received her BA in philosophy from the University of Redlands; MS in Clinical Psychology from California Lutheran University; and, MA and PhD in Experimental Psychology/ Neuroendocrinology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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