Last week, House Republicans’ withdrawal of the American Health Care Act, which would have cost 24 million Americans access to health insurance, was widely recognized as a victory for the whole nation. But, of course, it’s worth noting that the bill and its panel of white male writers also represents a women’s rights issue: The AHCA would have defunded Planned Parenthood, an organization that millions of low-income women rely on for birth control, breast cancer screenings and other women’s health services, and also largely decided maternity care options available to women.
And yet the AHCA’s disproportionate effects on low-income women and the cruel irony of wealthy old white men deciding policies that would never directly affect them, but would impede on millions of women’s bodily autonomy, was widely ignored. One recent survey explains why: According to findings published last Wednesday by D.C.-based research institute PerryUndem, 52 percent of American men do not believe they benefit from birth control.
The survey speaks to a common trend in activism and mainstream media narratives: Women’s issues are too often sidelined due to popular, inaccurate notions that they exclusively affect women. And not only is this factually inaccurate given the long-term economic consequences of reproductive health care, but this phenomenon also demonstrates harmful sexism through the devaluation and trivialization of women’s issues in their own right.
Consider actress Emma Watson’s alliance with the United Nations in order to promote the “He for She” movement, which aimed to get men involved with feminism. It is true that feminism benefits men, too — rigid patriarchal constructs which glorify masculinity to a dangerous extent and punish all men who fall out of line can hurt and ostracize men, just as hypersexualization and other misogynistic stereotyping hurts women.
Educating men about how they are affected by feminism and reaching across the aisle to dispel myths about the movement is deeply important. But feminism should not need to appeal to men and win their approval to be validated and popularized. Women’s rights should not rely on whether or not men understand how they are personally affected by women’s issues, nor whether or not men approve of women’s rights.
Nothing demonstrates more clearly the dangers of selectively respecting women’s rights issues on the condition that men believe these issues affect them than American politics. For example, earlier this month, Illinois Rep. John Shimkus argued that men’s taxpayer dollars should not fund coverage of prenatal care for mothers.
“To the best of your knowledge, has a man ever delivered a baby?” Shimkus asked his peers as the House Energy and Commerce Committee argued about requirements for insurance plans delineated by the Affordable Care Act.
And the same logic appears to be in play where legislative opposition to birth control is concerned. There are myriad reasons that predominantly straight, wealthy, white Christian men oppose funding Planned Parenthood, whose patrons and patients seeking contraception and education include sexually active women and the LGBTQ community. Their opposition to reproductive health care and constant efforts to put their personal values before women’s bodily autonomy are frequently attributed to religious zeal, but the recent study about men’s attitudes regarding birth control are deeply telling too.
Why should an everyday man, lacking in empathy and compassion for less fortunate women — an everyday man who believes birth control has no bearing on his standard of living — want to see his tax dollars go toward making birth control more affordable? Forget how the United States would save $12 billion a year if every woman had access to birth control, combating unwanted pregnancy rates, intergenerational poverty and reliance on social programs. Forget how costs for public health care, foster care, welfare and other related expenses directly resulting from teenage pregnancy amount to $9.4 billion annually.
Even disregarding the strong humanitarian case for granting men and women equal decision-making power over their bodies, if we can agree that men are affected by federal spending on social welfare and the economy at large, then we ought to be able to agree that men are affected by birth control accessibility, too.
It may be that women’s issues directly or disproportionately affect women, and affect women specifically because they are women. But whether in politics or popular culture, when women’s issues are regarded as fringe or irrelevant, they are automatically sidelined.
We should accept that women’s issues affect everyone as fact. But if we truly respect women as human beings and equals to men, we’ll cease to require men to have a stake in women’s issues before giving these issues respect and attention. We’ll cease to require men’s approval to validate women’s rights and the feminist movement. And ultimately, we’ll need no incentive to support causes that empower and enfranchise women other than that they empower and enfranchise women.
Kylie Cheung is a freshman majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs every Thursday.