I'm not exactly challenging conventional wisdom when I say that the 2012 General Assembly session was a rough one for Virginia women. Local and national headlines were filled with news of legislation that seemed less concerned with the state economy than with women's bodies, from Manassas Delegate Bob Marshall's unsuccessful "personhood" bill to the successful, albeit somewhat defanged, requirement that women undergo ultrasounds prior to receiving abortions.
As is often the case, the anti-choice advocates and sponsors condescendingly insist that these bills are about helping women, who apparently don't understand that an abortion terminates a pregnancy unless they're given a mandatory ultrasound. Similar concern trolling was used last fall, when an emergency session was convened to force abortion providers to remodel with the same dimensions as hospitals.
But one piece of legislation slipped quietly under the media radar during the 2012 session, and its eventual fate tells us a lot about the General Assembly's true attitude toward women and their health.
A bill sponsored by Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, would have banned the practice of shackling female inmates during childbirth. This process creates numerous health risks for both mothers and children, including increasing the likelihood of a potentially miscarriage-inducing fall and delaying assistance if there are issues with delivery. The bill had supporters as disparate as the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the hard-line social conservatives of the Virginia Family Foundation. Despite all this, the bill was killed in committee, making Virginia among 36 states where the practice remains legal.
It isn't clear why the bill failed. I, for one, have never talked to anyone, on the right or left, who doesn't find the practice of shackled births abhorrent when I describe it to them. Unfortunately, it looks more and more like the depressing answer is that, even as we decry violence against women, there are some women that our society simply views as less worthy of protection or help.
Sure, we say, women should be protected — but only certain women, those who haven't done anything to "deserve" their treatment. Women who have been convicted of crimes, or otherwise have found themselves in a position where our culture judges them, apparently have relinquished their right not to be brutalized or degraded.
This phenomenon extends to sexual assault as well. To pick one example, when a New York hotel maid accused then-International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault, she soon found herself under as much scrutiny as Strauss-Kahn, if not more; this reached its nadir when the always-classy New York Post ran an anonymously sourced story headlined "DSK Maid a Hooker."
Leaving aside the dubious credibility of the story's sources, the idea that the accuser was a sex worker only exonerates Strauss-Kahn if you believe that such women are somehow incapable of being sexually assaulted or, even more disturbingly, if you think they somehow "have it coming."
More recently, the Violence Against Women Act has come up for reauthorization in Congress. The version that already has passed the Senate made several additions to the existing law, including protections for women who are sexually assaulted on Indian reservations by non-Indians and for undocumented women. When the bill reached the Republican-controlled House, however, both of these provisions were removed. Once again, women deserve protection, of course, but not those women.
In late March, at a congressional hearing focusing on proposed Obama administration regulations to prevent sexual violence in immigration-detention centers, U.S. Rep. Elton Gallegy, R-Calif., made this thinking explicit: "It's outrageous that immigration detention facilities have morphed into college campuses." Congressman Steve King, R-Iowa, took things further, telling a witness who testified of 110 people who had died awaiting deportation, "110 people is not alarming to me." To top things off, the hearing was mockingly nicknamed Holiday on ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. As Jezebel.com's Erin Gloria Ryan put it: "They do have a point. If you asked a woman — undocumented or otherwise — to describe her dream luxury vacation, 'not getting raped' would likely be an important component."
Much has been made this year of the so-called war on women in both Congress and state legislatures, but the battle goes far deeper than that. The real war on women is in the idea that there are some women who simply don't deserve lives free of violence, or basic human dignity in childbirth. And make no mistake: A society that's willing to make that kind of pronouncement about some women will be just as willing to make it about all of them. S
Zack Budryk is a freelance writer living in Richmond.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.