We’re still debating whether what we’re doing in Libya can rightly be described as war, though bombs dropped amid an “intervention” are just as deadly. But where’s the debate over whether it’s fair or accurate to assert that Republicans in Congress have not-so-stealthily declared a “war on women”?

The New York Times editorial page says that’s what they’ve done. Naturally, all the usual partisan outfits and fundraisers agree. And we’re going to be hearing a lot more such talk as we move toward the 2012 budget discussions. That’s because social conservatives came so close to defunding Planned Parenthood in April that they’re bound to keep trying—or so Democrats hope. The Democrats’ rhetoric portraying the whole exercise in deficit reduction as cover for an “assault on women’s health” worked so well that they’ll surely keep on using it in response.

In the hours before a government shutdown was averted, a mass e-mail from the prolife Susan B. Anthony’s List proclaimed, “PRESIDENT TO SHUT DOWN GOVERNMENT TO KEEP PLANNED PARENTHOOD RUNNING.” The prochoice, less cap-happy but no more low-key EMILY’s List saw the situation differently, of course: “The GOP,” the lobby for Democratic women said in an e-mail, “is so focused on pushing their antiwoman agenda that they’re willing to shut down the entire federal government over funding for Planned Parenthood.”

But since when do two caricatures make a full picture? The debate over the deficit wasn’t “all about” abortion just because Republicans threw that into the mix, any more than President Barack Obama’s opposition to the Republican budget was “all about” saving Planned Parenthood just because he was determined to do so.

In February, the Times ran an editorial headlined “The War on Women,” accusing House Republicans of “mounting an assault on women’s health and freedom that would deny millions of women access to affordable contraception and life-saving cancer screenings and cut nutritional support for millions of newborn babies in struggling families. And this is just the beginning.”

The last part was definitely true; activists and opinion writers across the country mirrored both that language and the fear that, as an April piece in the Louisville Courier-Journal put it, “Women of America, you’ve been put on notice: If you have a womb, you’d darn well better plan on using it. You are practically vessels of the state.” My friend, former Politics Daily writer Joanne Bamberger observed on her blog, “Women are the scapegoats of the GOP’s push for a government shutdown.” Of the idea that conservatives might be standing up for what they believe in, she was beyond skeptical:

They’re lying. No federal funds go to Planned Parenthood for abortion, but they want you to believe that so they can shut down the rest of the health services many women receive there. They think that if they say it loud enough and long enough, that if they pound the tables and shake their heads as they roll their eyes on cable news shows, that we’ll believe they’re taking a moral stand about life, even though there isn’t a shred of truth to their budget ruse.

Only, negating even the possibility that those with whom one disagrees might be acting on principle doesn’t make it true, either. Neither does chalking up all opposition to abortion rights to a hateful “war on women,” no matter how many times that’s stated as fact. I am just as appalled when friends use the “L” word to describe prolife Republicans as I was when Joe Wilson yelled it at the president on the House floor. And like the larger budget debate, the disagreement over Planned Parenthood is more complicated than either side acknowledges.

The poor would likely suffer disproportionately if Planned Parenthood were defunded. And if access to contraceptives is cut off, it stands to reason that the abortion rate would increase. Yet I do not assume bad faith on the part of those who think there is no wall high enough to keep federal funds truly separate from the tiny percentage of Planned Parenthood monies spent for abortion services. And leaving aside the ridiculous “sting” operations to try to trap clinic workers, I do see excesses in Planned Parenthood’s offers of free abortions to women left widows after the 9/11 terror attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2006 Sago Mine explosion in Tallmansville, West Virginia. Similarly, the holiday gift certificates redeemable for services including abortion that Indiana’s Planned Parenthood offered in ’08 struck some of us who celebrate the birth of Jesus as just a little insensitive.

Personally, I’d love to see Obama support a “mend it, don’t end it” approach to Planned Parenthood. But I realize how vain a hope this is, even after the horrors uncovered in Kermit Gosnell’s Pennsylvania abortion mill. Abortion rights are as unassailable to the Democratic Party as Second Amendment rights remain to Republicans after the tragic shootings in Tucson. Throwing acid on a girl’s face to keep her from going to school, or dressing as she pleases, or walking out into the world without a male minder—now that is a war on women. What I see in the United States is a war on fairness, and disappointingly few conscientious objectors.

Related: Unbalanced, by Melinda Henneberger
To the Bone, by Nathan Pippenger

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of PoliticsDaily.com.
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