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Vagina Enters Stage Left -- Or Is It Right? (CNN)


Originally published in:
CNN
03/28/2012

http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/28/living/vagina-politics/index.html

By Wayne Drash and Jessica Ravitz, CNN


Protesters have taken to the streets in reaction to what they see as an assault on their reproductive rights.

(CNN) -- If anyone is comfortable speaking openly and boldly about women's bodies, it's Eve Ensler. The playwright and activist behind "The Vagina Monologues" has been at it for years.

So when she watches American politics of late -- especially the conversations swirling around women's reproductive rights -- she feels both amused and vindicated.

"The vagina has become so real, so present, so powerful that people are going after it directly," she said. "It's evidence that we're winning."

America is abuzz about women's issues.

The Republican Party, which has long fought big government in favor of privatization, has turned to regulating women's private parts -- or at least that's how many on the left see it.

Rush Limbaugh calls a graduate law student a "slut" for advocating contraception. Planned Parenthood gets vilified as a house of horrors for promoting women's health. And a new term has emerged for the leaders of states where abortion laws have tightened: "gyno-governors."

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What's unfolding has been fodder for TV laughs, with "Saturday Night Live," "The Daily Show" and Stephen Colbert getting in on the game. Garry Trudeau took on state-mandated vaginal ultrasounds in his "Doonesbury" strip, telling the Washington Post that "to ignore it would have been comedy malpractice."

A site called Government Free VJJ has launched "The Snatchel Project" with tips on how to "knit or crochet a vagina or uterus" and send it to men in Congress. "If they have their own," the site says, "they can leave ours alone!"

On Facebook, a viral campaign has targeted at least five "gyno-governors," with women asking anything from intimate questions about their vaginas to advice on menopause.

"I'm hopeful the sleeping giant of women and men across the country that has been awakened ... will help put the brakes on what has been a runaway train," said Susan Cohen, director of government affairs at the Guttmacher Institute, an organization established to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Women's groups had been closely monitoring conservatives since the tea party revolution of 2010. Their fears quickly became reality: State legislators in 2011 enacted 92 restrictions on access to abortion services, which nearly tripled the previous record of 34 restrictions adopted in 2005, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which conducts research, policy analysis and education.

Feminists of old see this fight as a pivotal point for the new generation, a carpe diem moment that could get younger women more active in health issues and policy.

"In every generation there are moments when the activism reaches a new level, and I think we're seeing that because of the vile rhetoric from anti-choice politicians and radio show hosts," said NARAL Pro-Choice America spokesman Ted Miller.

"What they didn't count on, or what they may have underestimated, is just how out of touch this agenda is with the country's values and priorities."

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Not so fast, say those on the other side of the debate. If you believe all that, then you're buying into the Obama campaign's brainwash machine -- led by a group of radicals whose goal is to pull women and girls "into the abortion facility as fast as possible and perform that abortion," said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee.

"I think there is a war on women," Tobias said, "but it's not coming from the Republicans or the so-called right.

"A lot of this is orchestrated by President Obama's campaign and his supporters. They're hoping to increase their support among women for the election, and I really don't think it's going to work."

Opening the 'gates of hell'

While campaigning last year for Mississippi governor, Republican Phil Bryant declared that if the state's "personhood" amendment failed, then "Satan wins."

"This is a battle of good and evil," said Bryant, who swept into office in November. "What times are we living in when it is politically incorrect for somebody to say, 'Satan has a hand in this.' ... We've got to fight against the gates of hell to prevail here."

The measure defined a person as "every human being from the moment of fertilization," and conservatives believed it was a slam dunk: a Bible-thumping state with a broad anti-abortion contingent.

Mississippi voters ultimately sided with women's rights. And ever since taking office, Bryant has yet to live down his remarks.

Whenever his Facebook page gets updated for things such as "Attend the Mississippi Employment Expo tomorrow," the digital onslaught begins.

"I heard Walgreens does pap smears for free, but the one in my town refuses. What should I do?" wrote Cristen Hemmins.

"I'm just a woman, isn't my place in the home? I need to just make babies, right?" added Melissa Sauer.

"Brother Phil, will women be allowed to attend the Job Expo? Isn't that contrary to Scripture?" said Alan Alexander, who got 36 "likes."

At times, the governor's office deletes offending posts, which promptly results in even more messages.

Bryant is not the only "gyno-governor" facing this Facebook graffiti. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Rick Perry of Texas, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Bob McDonnell of Virginia have been targeted for supporting similar legislation.

The digital warfare starts at the grassroots level, regular folks within a state united by a common cause: those who don't want women's rights trampled. Groups like NARAL and moveon.org join in, drawing even more comments.

Soon, it's viral.

McDonnell has been dubbed "Governor Ultrasound" for legislation that requires women to view ultrasounds before having abortions.

For his part, McDonnell is taking the Facebook attacks in stride.

"The governor is always pleased to see individuals exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech," said McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell.

A sisterhood of lawmakers

Not to be outdone by comedy writers, political cartoonists and the Facebook gyno-surgency, state lawmakers have proposed bills and amendments that have garnered plenty of snickers, if not signatures.

In January, amid debate over the abortion ultrasound legislation, state Sen. Janet Howell of Virginia introduced an amendment to require that men seeking erectile dysfunction drugs get rectal exams and cardiac tests.

Oklahoma state. Sen. Constance Johnson in early February introduced a handwritten amendment to the Health and Human Services Committee which read, "Any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child."

"I asked myself, 'Is there another word for ejaculation or vagina?' I couldn't think of any," she said, her drawl thick. "I wasn't trying to be funny. As ludicrous as I thought my proposal was, I was dead serious. If it's good for the goose, it's good for the gander."

Johnson has worked in the Oklahoma Senate for 32 years, first as a longtime staffer before she became an elected member in 2005. As a staffer, she drafted the bill in the late 1990s to mandate coverage of Viagra, she said.

"They passed that thing so quick. It was the fastest bill I've ever seen go through the legislature," Johnson said.

And until prevention of unintended pregnancies gets its due -- through sex education and access to contraception -- she'll keep making noise in support of a woman's right to an abortion.

"Some people call me a smart ass," she said. "But I come from a legacy of smart asses. And the scary part is I have smart-ass daughters."

Other lawmakers have followed: mock bills to ban vasectomies have been offered in Georgia and Missouri, suggesting the procedure deprives potential children from ever being born. In Illinois, one measure would require men seeking Viagra to view a graphic video showing the drug's potential side effects.

These like-minded lawmakers, and others (including some men), didn't work in cahoots. But Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner would like to change this. She sent a letter to her "sister legislators," inviting them to join in on a conference call.

"We must work with the utmost urgency and forge a sisterhood of lawmakers to more effectively defend the rights our foremothers worked to attain," she wrote earlier this month.

Turner was the force behind a bill that would require men seeking erectile dysfunction drugs to submit an affidavit from a sexual partner to certify impotence, see a sex therapist, receive counseling, undergo a cardiac stress test and be warned of risks and complications.

"The men in our lives ... generously devote time to fundamental female reproductive issues," she wrote in her press release. "The least we can do is return the favor."

'Two different planets'

Election cycles always bring out the most ardent activists on both sides of the abortion debate. Yet recent months have shown an intensified rhetoric around women's health policy, as exhibited by Rush Limbaugh's tirade against Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.

That incident, combined with the increase in abortion restrictions, was the tipping point among women's rights groups, they said.

But what is wrong, anti-abortion groups ask, with having a woman look at an ultrasound before going through with an abortion?

An ultrasound helps humanize what is about to happen, they said, something urinating on a stick and seeing a positive sign on plastic can't do.

"If she can be shown a picture of her unborn, that just helps her make a more informed decision," said Tobias with the National Right to Life Committee. "We think that a woman deserves to have all the medically relevant information that's available."

Tobias noted she's one of many women leading the "pro-life movement." The ultrasound measure in Virginia was introduced by a woman, state Sen. Kathy Byron, not by a gray-haired white man.

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"This is not an anti-woman campaign," she said. "Women are leading the charge. Pro-life, intelligent women in this country are not going to be fooled into thinking that there's a war against them."

Marjorie Dannenfelser said the left began steering the conversation away from abortion and toward contraception -- which she calls a "non-debate" -- after it realized "attacking the idea of the humanity of the fetus wasn't working anymore."

"It's as if we're on two different planets," said Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization established to advance and mobilize "pro-life" women in politics.

The idea that the GOP has declared war on women, she said, is "jaw-dropping." A war has been waged, she said, but it's "a war on religious liberty ... and a war on our ability to exercise our consciences."

"Women are fully aware of what's going on. They're tired of gender politics that divide women from men and women from children."

Opening the window

All this debate is enough to invoke hot flashes. So CNN tracked down Eve Ensler, the expert on all things female anatomy. Her global V-Day movement, an outgrowth of the success of "The Vagina Monologues," is set to celebrate its 15th anniversary next year with an event called "One Billion Rising."

What does she think about the resurgence of the vagina on the national stage?

"For so many years, people told me I was too vaginally centric," she said by phone from Paris. "And clearly, I wasn't vaginally centric enough!"

That the political conversation has swung to talk about contraception and mandated vaginal ultrasounds may be "the gift that keeps on giving."

Those on the right, she said, "don't even know what they've stepped into."

In her mind, she sees several images. One is a window that leads to women's liberation. Right now, Ensler says, it is only halfway open. Women can't quite squeeze their whole bodies through, but she believes what's happening now could change everything.

"This is the moment for women to come together. This is the moment to understand feminist rights and civil rights are here to stay," she said. "Women are going to rise up and push it all the way."

She references studies that outline women's progress -- how they're more often the major bread-winners, how girls are prospering in school. And she sees a "patriarchal dragon" rising up to fight that progress and taking its "last gasp."

Those driving this dragon, she said, have made it their mission to deregulate protection of the environment, deregulate corporations and finance and, in many respects, deregulate war, she says.

"The only thing they want to regulate is our bodies," she said. "It's profound if you think about it."

In a way, Ensler pities those trying to control women's reproductive and sexual rights.

"To some degree, the world has changed," she said. "And they don't know what to do in the new world."