At the University of Illinois, if a student decided she wanted to go on birth control, she would be able to. She of course would have to meet with a physician to decide if and what type of birth control was right for her, but she would — despite the Obamacare provision the Trump administration just revoked that required employers to provide insurance to cover a woman’s contraception use — be able to safely, informatively and inexpensively protect her reproductive health.
I realize that in the minds of those who support Trump’s decision, there might be some aspect of the situation I’m missing. But as I read this announcement, I began wondering if any of them realized just how similar their arguments sounded to those of the late George Wallace.
Born in 1919 in Clio, Alabama, George Wallace was the 45th governor of Alabama, best remembered as running for the Democratic nomination for president no less than three times, and even running as an independent in 1968. Quoting from John Lowndes’ book From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism, although Wallace never won the presidency, he did garner significant support from his constituents by running as an unforgiving segregationist and ardent supporter of state’s rights.
Now I’m not briefly recounting Wallace’s career and political leanings as any type of indictment toward the Trump administration or the Department of Human Health and Services (HHS). But I’d feel as if I were doing a disservice to my history professor’s lectures if I failed to notice the startling and ironic similarities between Wallace’s rhetoric for segregation, and the Trump administration’s for limiting women’s access to contraception.
Before 1964, Wallace was blatantly clear about his views regarding racial equality and integration. However, as his candidacy progressed, he realized the best way to build the maximum amount of support was by identifying people’s larger concerns and quietly linking their roots back to the push for racial integration. When Wallace spoke at his rallies, he mainly focused on the need for “law and order,” state’s rights to decide on segregation, and played on the social and economic fears of working-class, middle-class, white Americans. While Wallace addressed white ethnic groups that initially had little in common, he drew them into sympathy with one another as a collective group of white Americans who felt betrayed by the federal government and left them vulnerable to African Americans. This argument tapped into a whole host of concerns, namely the desegregation of housing and schools, which resonated with his supporters because it addressed their concerns while at the same time side-stepping the racial motivations behind their opposition to desegregation.
In 1968, Wallace unsurprisingly railed against the newly implemented Civil Rights laws. He claimed they “were really an attack on the property rights of this country and on the free enterprise system and local government.” This claim was effective because Wallace’s rhetoric focused on the belief that white American property rights and the larger economy were being undermined, which tapped into already enflamed biases. This approach shadowed, or at least made the real issues of racism easier to overlook, as a startling number of supporters continued to be drawn to Wallace’s platform.
But what in the world does a man who ran for president over 40 years ago have to do with women’s contraception care in 2017? In his public statement, Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, tried to qualify this rollback by stating, “This [provision] provides an exception, and it’s a limited one. We should have space for organizations to live out their religious identity and not face discrimination.”
Huh. What interesting reasoning to say that by providing equal care and health access to women, then what you are really doing is discriminating against the employer. (George Wallace, anyone?) Severino’s statement re-shapes the idea of who is deserving of health care coverage and who is not, and in this instance he shows that it is those who either have private insurance or would be able to pay for contraception out of pocket, primarily meaning middle- to upper-class white women.
According to GoodRX.com, quoted on NPR, a one month’s supply of birth control can cost anywhere from $4 to $55 or more, while an intrauterine device can run upwards of $1,000. This change in contraception care means there a significant number of women will lose coverage because of financial restrictions.
What’s more, this ruling isn’t endorsed by licensed physicians. Quoted in the Chicago Tribune, Dr. Howard Brown, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, explicitly states that, “Affordable contraception for women saves lives. It improves maternal mortality, and prevents adolescent pregnancies.” Reading this statement, I seriously question any argument that tries to claim that the employer of a company is really the subject being discriminated against by revoking a woman’s access to contraception.
So without ever saying that this decision is a way to control and limit women’s access to reproductive health care, that is what this rollback states. No one is denying that every individual has a right to their personal religious beliefs, but when someone tries to use those beliefs to affect a woman’s ability to protect herself, it crosses the line from personal faith to gender and racial discrimination. The majority of women who will be affected are those lower on the socio-economic scale, which primarily means minority women who can’t afford to pay out of pocket for contraception. Inevitably this change will result in more women becoming pregnant who don’t want to be, an untenable position that can easily be prevented by ensuring all women have access to effective and affordable contraception.
If George Wallace were here today, he would likely applaud the Trump administration’s stylistic rhetoric. But because of Wallace’s own history of re-shaping language, we can see through the phony reasonings that are really just attempts to restrict a woman’s control over her own sexuality and to make it more difficult for a woman to cover her basic health needs.
So in an offshoot of the infamous language of George Wallace, I declare women’s health rights today, women’s health rights tomorrow, women’s health rights forever.
Meghan McCoy is a senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, majoring in English with a minor in History.