The Real American Taliban

Susan J. Douglas

It is not surprising when The Nation features an article about the Bush administration’s assault on women’s reproductive rights. But when the New York Times prints a huge Sunday editorial titled The War Against Women” that takes up two-thirds of the op-ed space, something is afoot.

That January 12 piece gathered together a range of seemingly minor items — who was appointed to such-and-such unheard of commission, what was the U.S. position at a U.N.-sponsored conference held on the other side of the planet — and showed how, when put together, they constitute a domestic and international offensive against the health and safety of women and children.

Remember when Laura Bush (who may be — I am very sorry — the most cynically deployed first lady in our history) took to the airwaves in fall 2001 to assert that the war in Afghanistan was really about freeing women from the Taliban’s tyranny? Well, aren’t they lucky. Now they and the billions of other women around the world, especially in poor and developing countries, can be subject to our very own not kinder, not gentler Taliban: the U.S. Christian right.

Laura Bush got a lot of play for her seemingly brief flirtation with feminism and her deep empathy for Afghan women. In August, to much less media fanfare, her husband decided to withhold $2.4 million in emergency funding authorized by Congress for programs to support women in Afghanistan, who suffer from one of the highest infant-mortality rates in the world. 

President Bush also withheld $200 million to combat AIDS/HIV in Afghanistan. Why? Any program around the world that promotes anything other than abstinence only” approaches to AIDS — like, say, condom use — is immoral and must be squashed. 

Also under the media radar screen was Bush’s freezing of $3 million in funding to the World Health Organization because it conducts research on mifepristone, an early-abortion drug. And do women know that Bush opposes ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires signatories to remove barriers that discriminate against women? The United States is the only industrialized nation not to sign; 170 other countries have. 

What Team Bush has been doing is shrewd and lethal. They know that the news media — already swamped covering the Iraq story, the economy and male-pattern baldness — do not cover stories so minor as who gets appointed to the Reproductive Health Advisory Committee of the Food and Drug Administration or who represents the United States (or what they say) at U.N. conferences on sustainable development and population growth. But like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these aliens have colonized a host of boards, panels and delegations at home and abroad. While they’re not always successful in getting the rest of the world to agree that the best form of population control is to tie women’s legs together, they do slow down or derail the proceedings at hand.

Consider just one part of the fundamentalist phalanx: the Bush appointees to the FDA’s reproductive health committee. They include Dr. David Hager, who opposes prescribing contraceptives to unmarried women, but does prescribe the reading of biblical scriptures to treat PMS. Also new to the committee is 

Dr. Joseph Stanford, who refuses to prescribe any contraceptives, period. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, whose anti-choice record as governor of Wisconsin made him a darling of the right, appointed abstinence-only ideologue Dr. Alma Golden to oversee the implementation of Title X, the country’s family-planning program. In September, Bush named a member of a group called — get this — Virginity Rules,” one Dr. Freda McKissic Bush, to the Centers for Disease Control Advisory Committee on HIV and STD Prevention. The administration’s delegations to U.N. meetings include John Klink, former chief negotiator for the Vatican.

Each appalling appointment, taken on its own, can seem like one individual concession to the Christian right that progressives must swallow. But taken together — and added to more newsworthy moves like Bush’s reinstatement of the global gag rule,” which prohibits any health care providers who receive U.S. aid from talking about or providing abortions — we see a carefully coordinated jihad. Given the war on terror” that allegedly targets Islamic extremists, it is peculiar that at U.N. conferences, the U.S. delegation colludes with Islamic fundamentalists to try to restrict contraception information, abortion and sex education.

The Team Bush policies at home and abroad, if allowed to triumph, guarantee ongoing illness, death, poverty and oppression of women. (In Texas, which has an abstinence-only sex-education program, the rate of sexually transmitted diseases has soared.) But we are not helpless in the face of the jihad. Join Planned Parenthood or another reproductive rights group you admire, read their Web sites, send them money, and let Congress know that you regard Bush and his extremist appointments as the real American Taliban.” 

The Bush offensive against the health and safety of women is a carefully coordinated jihad.
Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. Her forthcoming book is In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead..
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