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Religion versus the right to health care

By Jocelynne Scutt - posted Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Comments on rape and abortion made by U.S. Republican Presidential hopeful, Rick Santorum, in his race for GOP nomination, raise questions as leadership on the health, security and safety of women.

The world is accustomed to past and present reality: that as a general rule, men hold pre-eminence in the political race for leadership and that, where elections are mandated and held, the vast majority of countries elect male leaders. Generally, there is no choice, for rarely do political parties preselect women for the top job. Yet when it comes to political leadership, women have a right to representation that incorporates them as an equally significant part of humanity. Women have a right to leaders having an awareness, appreciation and understanding of woman-as-equal.

Human rights must include women as equal members of the human race, and true democracy demands leaders who know and practice this principle. In addition to all else, leaders must have the capacity to initiate and support measures: advancing women’s equality in health rights; extending to women the right to feel and be safe and secure at home and outside it; and ensuring women the right to be autonomous in their daily lives, in both public and private.


This means that women’s health, safety, security and wellbeing should not be jeopardised by culture, ideology or religious dogma denying women access to health care.

Yet interviewed by Piers Morgan, Santorum’s remarks make clear his difficulty in reconciling three elements: the notion that rape is a crime he cannot be seen to support, his proposition that no pregnancy should end in termination, and the appeal to faith, namely, that ‘God’ has a place in there, somewhere.

This is evident in his stumbling replies to Morgan’s questions as to his stand that women should be denied abortion ever and always, including where conception follows from sexual attack. Even were his own daughter pregnant through rape, he would admonish her to bear the child. Even if she were ‘begging him to allow her’ to terminate the pregnancy, he ‘would do what every father would do; to try to counsel your daughter to do the right thing.’ For him, ‘the right thing’ is absolute. It is to continue the pregnancy, bring the child to term, and accept motherhood as the ‘right’ outcome.

These duties fall exclusively on women. ‘Women ought, in such a circumstance,’ he said,  ‘welcome’ this ‘horrible’ ‘gift from God’, for women are bound to ‘make the best out of a bad situation’, albeit such a child is ‘horribly created’:“As you know, we have to, in lots of different aspects of our life we have horrible things happen. I can't think of anything more horrible, but nevertheless, we have to make the best out of a bad situation and I would make the argument that that is making the best.”

Asked about the impact of rape and its potential aftermath, Santorum asserted: “Well, you can make the argument that if she doesn't have this baby, if she kills her child, then that, too, could ruin her life. And this is not an easy choice, I understand that. As horrible as the way that that son or daughter and son was created, it still is her child. And whether she has that child or she doesn't, it will always be her child, and she will always know that…And so to embrace her and to love her and to support her and get her through this very difficult time, I've always, you know, I believe and I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created - in the sense of rape - but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you.”

Apparently for Santorum, women who have had denied to them their own bodily integrity and autonomy through rape will be denied it through the refusal of a right to abortion.


On abortion, Santorum is not alone. Fellow U.S. presidential primaries candidate Newt Gingrich supports a ‘personhood’ amendment to the US Constitution that would define a ‘person’ as ‘every human being from the moment of fertilisation, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof’. U.S. writer Tanya Somanader critiques the ‘profoundly ambiguous language’ of such an amendment, rejected in Mississippi when it came before the state legislature in 2011. ‘Fertilisation’ is, she says, defined so that it could ‘potentially outlaw birth control, stem cell research, and in vitro fertilisation’.

Ironically, claims for the ‘personhood’ of the fertilised ovum and foetus bring women’s personhood into question. Whether or not intended, such proposals put into potential conflict the pregnant woman and the foetus, as if the woman and the pregnancy are two separate entities rather than the pregnancy being an intrinsic part of the woman or, indeed, intrinsic to the pregnant woman.

For some time, concerns about the promotion of such a contest have been raised in the context of healthcare. While the pregnant woman is entitled to consider herself the obstetrician’s patient, the proposition is that obstetricians may see the pregnancy, that is, the fertilised ovum and foetus, as their patient. This is crucial, for should it come to a question of medical treatment, including survival, the doctor’s duty lies with ‘the patient’.

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About the Author

Dr Jocelynne A. Scutt is a Barrister and Human Rights Lawyer in Mellbourne and Sydney. Her web site is here. She is also chair of Women Worldwide Advancing Freedom and Dignity.

She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.

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