Opinion Columns & Blogs

Viewpoints: California’s poor women overlooked in progressive agenda

As California closed the book on the 2013 legislative session, a popular notion took hold, here and across the nation, that the Golden State is a pretty woman-friendly place. At a time when many states are losing ground in reproductive rights and women’s health care generally, California has passed legislation that increases abortion access, repeals Targeted Regulation of Abortion Provider (TRAP) laws and improves pre- and perinatal health care services. These are legitimate political gains, and the advocates who achieved them should be proud.

But I worry that California progressives are prematurely popping the champagne. Yes, several of our new laws protecting women’s rights are forward-looking, but that’s only part of the story being lived by women in our state. Look outside the official narrative of “progressive California” and you’ll see a different story unfolding, one in which the state can, and does, assert strict control over female bodies. But because those bodies belong to the poor and disenfranchised, we don’t hear much about it.

One piece of pro-woman legislation that didn’t make it to the governor’s desk was Assembly Bill 271 aimed at repealing the Maximum Family Grant rule for CalWORKs recipients. Under this rule, CalWORKs families are ineligible for a benefits increase if a new child is born when they’ve been on CalWORKs for 10 months. This can be devastating for families barely making ends meet with a combination of low-wage jobs and government assistance. In refusing to acknowledge new children born to struggling families, CalWORKs as it’s currently administered can cause them to slide even further into poverty.

That’s bad enough – penalizing poor women for their reproductive choices – but it’s not the worst part of the Maximum Family Grant Rule. The worst is the exceptions to the rule. Some CalWORKs families may be eligible for additional assistance, but they must prove either that they were using state-approved birth control (Norplant or IUDs), that the mother was sterilized, or that the new pregnancy was the result of incest or rape. Got that? Because these women are poor, the state reserves the right to control their contraceptive choices and make their personal traumas a matter of public record.

Evidence shows that such government efforts to control poor women’s reproduction don’t actually result in those women having fewer children. The decision to add to one’s family takes place in an intersecting space of values, hopes, desires and even religious beliefs, a private sphere where the state doesn’t hold much sway. What these reproductive penalties do accomplish is to assure that children born to economically insecure families will suffer all the social, educational and health disadvantages of poverty.

Dubious as the CalWORKs policy is, the state has something worse in store for California’s women inmates. In July, the Center for Investigative Reporting broke a story about the surgical sterilization of women in California prisons. The practice of coercing prisoners into such procedures is illegal, and sterilizations that aren’t medically necessary require high-level state approval. Nonetheless, from 2006 to 2010, about 150 sterilizations were performed without appropriate authorization.

Legislators called for an immediate review, but for many women the irrevocable damage had already been done. Although the story caused a few news cycles’ worth of outrage this summer, it’s since gone quiet. I have to assume that if illegal sterilizations had been performed on middle-class women we’d still be hearing about them, and in fact would never hear the end of it until the matter was resolved and restitution was made.

The public’s appetite for grim stories like these is limited. We have to be prodded into paying sustained attention – that’s why we have political activists. If the sterilization story slipped off the radar, and if the CalWORKs issue never quite broke through, it’s in part because they didn’t get sufficient backing from professional advocacy groups, the women’s advocates and other progressive types who work at the Capitol to ensure their issues get due consideration by legislators and the press.

It’s not that progressives don’t care about prisoners or CalWORKs recipients. It’s that it is dangerously easy to be lulled into thinking that matters affecting marginalized groups are lower-stakes issues, which are somehow less relevant to the majority. Like so many things in America, whether you benefit from progressive political reform is often determined by economic class. I urge progressive activists to remember that social “progress” that excludes the economically disadvantaged is ultimately a hollow achievement. Next time we’re rallying or writing letters to protect women’s right to control their bodies, let’s make sure all women’s bodies are accounted for.