The Worst State for Women?

AP Photo/ James MacPherson

In the past couple of years, so many states have passed laws restricting women’s rights it seems they’re competing for the dubious honor of being the worst place for women to live. Texas rejected federal family-planning funds and is busily whittling away subsidized contraception access for poor women. Virginia passed a series of regulations on abortion clinics aimed at putting them out of business. The governor of Mississippi has been bragging about ending legal abortion in his state. In this new year, though, another state has risen to the top of the competitive field: North Dakota.

Anti-abortion activists and legislators in North Dakota have been quite busy. Inspired by a Mississippi law, the North Dakota Legislature is considering a measure that could close the state’s only clinic—the Red River Women’s Clinic in Fargo—by requiring that it employ only doctors who have privileges allowing them to admit patients to a local hospital. Because the clinic is often the subject of harassment and threats, most of the clinic’s doctors come from out of town to perform abortions—two are from Minneapolis and one is from Colorado—so they lack these privileges. The chances of the doctors getting the privileges now are low, because hospitals don’t want to draw the same protests. Militants created an environment of intimidation, and now the legislature is exploiting it.

A state representative, Bette Grande, claims that the requirement promotes women’s safety. She believes medication abortions, which require that women pick up medication at a clinic but take it at home, are unsafe: “How do you get follow-up care when you are in the middle of the procedure?” Turns out a quick Google search would answer her question. The FDA recommends that women who take the abortion pill return two weeks later for a follow-up and to call their doctor from home if they start to show unexpected negative symptoms. Which is true for any other drug taken at home.

The legislature is also hearing testimony on three separate bills that would define fertilized eggs as “persons,” as well as another bill that would ban abortions at the point when a fetal heart tone is detectable, which can be as early as seven weeks.

Activists have also begun pressuring North Dakota State University to drop a program aimed at helping teenagers prevent unplanned pregnancies. The professors recruited Planned Parenthood to help run it, and pressure on the university to cancel the program mounted. Now, the university has frozen the three-year federal grant funding for the program while it “reviews” a 1979 law barring state money from being used as “family planning funds by any person or public or private agency which performs, refers, or encourages abortion.” Since the program aims to help teenagers who are homeless, in foster care, or in the juvenile justice system develop skills to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy, anyone who sincerely wished to prevent abortion would support this program.

North Dakota, though, isn’t exhibiting hostility only to reproductive rights but also to women in general. If you’re a woman who struggles economically, it’s doubly bad for you. John Eligon, writing for The New York Times, described in a piece published on January 15 how rural North Dakota, especially near boomtowns built around the oil industry, has become a frightening and hostile place for single women. Women make up only 42 percent of the single population in North Dakota, creating a “man’s world” atmosphere where sexist behavior has few checks on it. Women are constantly being sexually harassed, and the rates of crimes against women are rising. In the 1990s, programs were established to respond to and prevent violence against women in rural North Dakota under the Violence Against Women Act, but unfortunately for the women of the state, House Republicans recently killed the once-popular legislation.

For Native American women, the situation is even more dire. They have more than three times the poverty rate of white women in the state, and the average Native American woman made $23,000 a year in 2008, less than half the income that the average white woman made. Nearly half of Native American women there live in female-headed households with children. The teen birthrate for Native Americans in North Dakota is incredibly high: 96.4 births per 1,000 girls for Native Americans, compared to 21.1 for white teenage girls. The attacks on sex education for at-risk teens and the elimination of accessible abortion in the state will undoubtedly have a disproportionate effect on Native American women in light of their already-existing struggles.

The situation in North Dakota reflects a larger polarizing trend in the United States. In some parts of the country, especially blue states and urban areas, the dream of feminism is becoming a reality, with women taking advantage of new opportunities for education, career advancement, and historically high levels of control over their personal lives. Women in red states, especially in rural areas, bear the brunt of the ongoing backlash against feminism's advances, particularly when it comes to reproductive health care. While abortion access recedes in red areas, this map shows that the number of clinics providing abortions—without laws that create hurdles for women seeking them—are still high in liberal areas. Now anti-feminists in red states are taking retribution to the next level, looking for ways to block women from family planning clinics where they get affordable contraception. Meanwhile, conservative business owners who employ heavily in red areas are trying to find ways to terminate insurance coverage of contraception, which would exacerbate the existing inequalities between women who live in more liberal areas and women who face government and employer-imposed obstacles to getting basic reproductive health care.

The sad irony is that much of what’s driving the escalation of the war on women stems from conservative anger at the luckiest daughters of feminism: the privileged single women with college degrees who flock to liberal centers and who helped hand Barack Obama his electoral victories. Those women, however, are out of social conservatism’s reach. The targets for misogynists’ rage, therefore, are usually the women in their own communities, who often don’t have the same educational, economic, and cultural advantages as their urban counterparts do. Conservatives may not be able to put the Sandra Flukes of the world back in the kitchen, but they can make life even harder for the single mother working two jobs who lives next door. 

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