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Is it just me, or is American culture starting to move away from women having a right to personal autonomy? It seems to me that while abortion restrictions, and now contraception restrictions, as well as same-sex marriage restrictions, are all part of creeping Talibangelical law here in America, something more insidious is happening: a denial of female autonomy.

We’ve all seen Rachel Maddow’s giant leaping Graph of Laws About Women’s Bodies that flies high into the hundreds after the election of state legislators calling themselves TeaPartiers in 2010. That’s part of what I’m talking about, but there is also something in the general culture, and anecdotal reports too. Somehow, sometime recently, it became okay, almost mandatory, to question and challenge the choices women have made or are making.

Not just about their own bodies and their own reproductive health, although that’s the sharp pointy end of the transvaginal wand. Also, too: work, life, child-bearing, child-rearing, marriage, education, partner selection, living arrangements, career, and marital status.

And also, apparently, rape.

Especially, it seems to me lately, when two or more of those interact with one another in a way that somehow invites cultural commentary. Except, you know, it needn’t invite anyone’s commentary, really.

The whole “exceptions in the case of rape, incest and the life/health of the mother” used to be about when federal tax dollars could or could not be used to PAY for an abortion. Suddenly, and very quickly, the who-is-paying aspect has been dropped from the discussion. Federal taxpayers used to claim a right to prohibit their tax money being spent on abortion, and then listed some exceptions to that prohibition. But American political debate has moved way past that.

Society at large is now permitted an opinion about forcing a rape victim to bear the child of, and perhaps even allow parental visitation rights to, the criminal who violated her. Regardless of whether she’s paying for her own abortion, or if her insurance company is, the state (and its surrounding culture) is permitted an enforceable opinion about a crime victim’s duty to bear her rapist’s offspring.

How did we get here? In what media, in what cultural milieu, in whose church, in which community did it become anyone’s business how a rape victim got regulated with regard to the parts of her that were just criminally violated? When did that topic become an Open Forum for ‘grey-faced men with two-dollar haircuts,’ in the recent and immortal words of Tina Fey?

Stephen Colbert brought ‘even the moderate’ governor of Indiana, Mitch Daniels, up short in his recent interview when Daniels started to weasel-answer a question about Medieval Opiner and US Senate candidate Richard Mourdock when Daniels said (para), “Abortion is a contentious issue in American society, and I don’t think one side is going to convince the other of its views anytime soon.”

Colbert replied (para){video}, “With all due respect, Governor, there didn’t used to be two sides of the debate about rape, which is, after all, what we’re talking about here. When did THAT happen?”

Autonomy and personal choice isn’t only about babies and when or whether to have them; I hear anecdotes from friends about workplace dismissiveness on the rise, along with simple ignorance about women going into dealers to buy their cars, or showing up to rent their own apartments. Choosing their own life partners, or commenting on blog posts is similarly challenged across the spectrum: females’ decisions are subject to societal (male) oversight. Somehow, whether it is the cause or the result, there is this cultural shift where everyone (man) is now entitled to an opinion about a woman’s reproductive choices. And as that discussion becomes very public, part of the center of the presidential campaign and many US Senate campaigns as well, it’s transitioning into the personal, I fear.

Just because any politician opines on any woman’s health rights doesn’t mean the general topic gets laid out for everyone to comment on in public, for any specific person. Yet I fear, and I hear, that that is what is happening: “how could you have a child, given XYZ?” — when XYZ is any combination of cultural/economic/personal factors that really aren’t anybody’s business.

Why do folks now seem to think that personal decisions about life, family, and career are topics for discussion among adults who have no stake in the outcome? Has the televised political roundtable yielded up a kitchen-table permission that’s new and in-everybody’s-business? When we see a Sunday gabfest-chat around a table about this topic, does that entitle us (men) to bring it into the break-room on Monday?

Do Paul Ryan’s earnest pro-life proclamations entitle someone sharing the produce aisle to pronounce equally broad statements about a strangers’ — or near-strangers’ — choices? Are people butting into ladies’ lives, and ladies’ life-choices, more frequently?

I worry that they are. Worse, I worry that we’re seeing a previous high tide of woman’s autonomy recede into the past: while it used to be, not so long ago, that women were seen as autonomous actors in their own lives enabled with choice and free will, I wonder if the political landscape either reflects or drives a retreat. Is the late-20th century’s respect for women something we’ll pine for, not something we’ll build on?

Do we now see women as less autonomous, less of a person, more subject to social or cultural control, because of (or due to) the questions of her health and reproduction being aired in the public sphere?

Are we moving in the direction of The Handmaid’s Tale without recognizing it? And how can citizen-feminists, who recognize and affirm female autonomy, challenge this public decline of women’s personhood? Do we contribute to it by even participating in these conversations about the restrictions on women’s rights?

When we have a president who deems it necessary to say during a late night television appearance that “Rape is rape” does that help women? Or does that help that president’s re-election chances by making the topic something a president can — or should — opine on?

Can we declare that, once won, recognitions of selfhood and autonomy cannot be undone in a society? And if so, where does that declaration stand? Where need we make that declaration? And how often?

Must we take steps every day to ensure any woman’s right to exist, make her own choices, live her own life, cast her own vote, or control her own body? Shouldn’t we all actively resist the apparent backsliding of these rights? Consider this: wouldn’t the people who want to remove women’s autonomy over their bodies be very happy if women lost the vote, too?

If the high point of autonomy is behind us, we must reclaim that peak. Our society, and equality of choice, demands no less.

Teddy Partridge

Teddy Partridge