A lot of things have been caught up in the conservative wave roiling Congress and the presidential campaign right now, but two of the most serious are women's health care and medical research. Both are threatened by the attacks on abortion rights and Planned Parenthood.
Abortion is a difficult, emotionally charged issue, and the anti-abortion movement has intimidated many people into silence. It's hard to speak out for something that opponents insist is infanticide. And so facts and medical science get shoved to the side.
The facts are that a woman is not simply a childbearing apparatus, not all pregnancies are wanted or will be successful, and abortion is a vital women's medical and family-planning procedure.
Women for whom an unintended pregnancy will change career or education plans; women who don't have the financial ability or the emotional strength to care for another baby; women who have been raped; women who have been told that their fetus is severely damaged; women for whom pregnancy and childbirth would be dangerous; women who learn that their baby, carried to full term, will die soon after birth: women who are considering an abortion don't need lectures. They need the advice and counseling of medical professionals. And they need proper, legal, medical care.
Most women seeking an abortion are already mothers - 61 percent, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Thirty percent already have at least two children. These women know what pregnancy and childbearing are.
And women are not naïve. We have an intimate knowledge of our reproductive system. We spend 40 or more years experiencing a messy, inconvenient, sometimes embarrassing, often painful reminder of how our reproductive system works. We worry about it: about unplanned pregnancy, about unsuccessful pregnancy, about ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, cervical cancer.
But facts, personal stories, and conservatives' concern about government intrusion into people's lives have done nothing to soften the commitment of those in the anti-abortion movement. And so the movement's success has grown, with state after state passing laws that restrict women's access to abortion.
"So far this year states have enacted 51 new abortion restrictions," says a July report from the Guttmacher Institute. Eleven states ban abortion after 20 weeks. A Kansas law, now being challenged, bans abortion after 14 weeks. Twenty-five states have laws mandating unnecessary staffing requirements or expensive physical changes at clinics, which has reduced the number of abortion providers.
And now, thanks to conservatives' abhorrence of Planned Parenthood, the attack has encompassed fetal tissue research. Fetal tissue has been invaluable in medical research. It was fetal tissue that was used in the development of the first polio vaccine. It is being used for research into birth defects, cancer, brain development, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, and many other diseases and disorders, notes the National Institutes of Health.
But state legislators in Wisconsin and Ohio want to ban research using the tissue, a Politico article reported earlier this month, and several other states already limit scientists' access to it.
Women's bodies are marvelous things, critical partners in the creation of human life. But this is a partnership in which women bear the largest responsibility. We can't create life by ourselves, but once the process is set in motion, it's all up to us.
And that is a burden that only women bear. If we value life, as people on both sides of the issue do, surely we value the vulnerable vessel that harbors and nourishes and encourages life as it is beginning, and we should provide health care to protect it. And surely we value the research that can lead to medical progress for all of us.
But given the growing strength of the conservatives in Congress and the growing hostility among the Republican presidential candidates, there's little chance that the attacks - on women's health, on Planned Parenthood, on vital medical research - will ease off.
These are troubling, scary times.