Feminism has been around for quite a while now. We've gone through at least three waves, countless publications, and more backlashes than you can count. In that time, if we've learned anything at all, we've learned this: women respond really, really well to being called "objects," and to being told that "their" issues are separate from "real" ones.
Recently it was "shiny objects," and the more important issues were "economic." Those were the words of senior Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom on ABC's This Week during a panel on the "women's vote." George Stephanopoulos read aloud a quote from an Obama adviser listing an ominous array of social changes that might occur should Romney be elected: "Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He's far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage."
"Mitt Romney is pro-life," Fehrnstrom said. "He'll govern as a pro-life president, but you're going to see the Democrats use all sorts of shiny objects to distract people's attention from the Obama performance on the economy. This is not a social issue election."
That's not just women and people who need abortions or contraceptives, but also immigrants and LGBT people, being deemed "shiny." One imagines that those who happen to fall into the intersections of those three groups gleam especially brightly in Fehrnstrom's and/or Romney's eyes.
But the distinction between "economic" and "social" issues is inherently false, particularly as it pertains to reproductive choice. The economy isn't separate from issues of choice, nor is it separate from any issue we might refer to as a "woman's issue" (which, one hopes, extends beyond the simple matter of whether to have a baby).
To start, people often don't have babies unless they can afford them. An economic downturn can alter the course even of a planned pregnancy. Since the recession, more people have been demanding contraceptive services, and more have been seeking abortions.
"Poor women are more likely to terminate unintended pregnancies than their more well-to-do counterparts," explains one study. "As more women and families fall below the poverty line and are otherwise constrained by financial circumstances, abortion rates can be expected to rise."
But people don't have abortions unless they can afford them, either. In 2009, USA Today quoted Stephanie Poggo of the National Network of Abortion Funds, who said she'd spoken to women who'd "cut down on food" and put off paying bills in order to afford abortions, but still couldn't get enough money.
These stories speak to one larger fact: well-off, socially privileged women will always be able to have abortions, or children, if they want them. Since there has been a relatively safe medical procedure to terminate a pregnancy, doctors of good conscience have been performing it for their patients.
Before Roe v. Wade, the people who died from botched, unsafe or self-administered abortions were usually poor, young or lacking the social connections necessary to find a real doctor who could provide a discreet D&C. Those are the same people affected by economic attacks on reproductive health care, such as banning insurance coverage for contraception or abortion, or by measures such as H.R.3, which targeted the reproductive rights of people on Medicaid.
Economic violence is real violence. It impacts people. It changes lives. And it's what conservative fiscal policies enable. Cutting social programs such as domestic violence shelters, denying insurance coverage for reasons of religious belief, or attacking institutions like Planned Parenthood that provide affordable reproductive health care, doesn't strengthen the economy. What such measures do is penalize the poor, making them less able to access contraception and more likely to need the abortions that Romney, as a potential "pro-life president," would claim to abhor.
And yes, they potentially make abortions less accessible. But no matter what laws we pass, the existence of the technology means that abortions can, do, and always will happen—particularly among the rich, privileged and connected. If Mitt Romney did criminalize abortion, he'd criminalize it for everyone except for the wives and daughters of men like Mitt Romney.
Economic issues are social issues. There is no election that does not involve both. And in both cases, a policy that privileges only the richest is harmful. If Romney wants to make this an "economic" fight on grounds of fiscal conservatism, he can—but not without betraying how very wrong he is about women.