Proponents claim that the new law is an important measure to help protect young women from the older men who may prey on them. But women’s health advocate point out that collecting DNA evidence isn’t likely to deter teen pregnancy, or help educate young people about sexual boundaries and consent — and investing in comprehensive sex ed programs would actually do a better job of accomplishing those goals. Worse, mandatory cord blood collection could actually be a traumatic process for a new teenage mother to go through. “We think it’s a very invasive law to a woman who is already in a vulnerable situation,” Carol Penick, the executive director of the Women’s Fund of Mississippi, explained to Reuters.
This is hardly the first misguided policy heralded as a method of “protecting” women. Across the country, lawmakers attempt to construe their initiatives within the context of women’s health and safety, even when — just as in Mississippi — those policies may not actually address the root causes of issues that impact women. Here are four other recent examples:
1. Allowing college students to carry concealed weapons on campus. In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, as the national conversation turned toward gun violence prevention, opponents of gun control have repeatedly argued that restricting firearms will prevent women from protecting themselves from assailants. Specifically, one Indiana lawmaker pushed to allow college students to carry hidden weapons on campus to help address the high rates of sexual assault on college campuses. But sexual violence prevention advocates point out that concealed carry laws are not actually a woman’s issue. Most sexual assaults occur between people who know each other — “Are you going to be willing to shoot the person that is your friend?” one rape counselor pointed out — and women are more likely to be shot and killed by an abusive partner than the other way around.
2. Shutting down reproductive health clinics. Abortion opponents typically say that restricting women’s reproductive rights is a moral imperative in order to protect unborn fetuses, but sometimes they also suggest those restrictions are important to help keep women safe. But the arguments about women’s health and safety are simply a method of obscuring an anti-abortion agenda. That dynamic is particularly evident as lawmakers across the country impose unnecessary, burdensome restrictions on abortion clinics. Even though they claim those restrictions are necessary to make sure that abortion clinics are operating safely and women’s health is protecting, those policies actually represent an indirect method of restricting abortion access by forcing health clinics to shut down. And eliminating women’s reproductive health resources doesn’t actually ensure women’s safety; rather, it increases the chances that women will resort to unsafe, unsanitary abortions when they don’t have any other options available to them.
3. Banning transgender people from using bathrooms or playing on sports teams. The lawmakers who support legalizing discrimination against Americans based on their gender identity typically justify their position by claiming they want to keep women safe and comfortable. One legislator in Arizona explained that he doesn’t want transgender Americans to be able to use the bathroom or locker room that best fits their gender identity because it might be harmful for women to see male body parts in those spaces. That’s the position of the anti-gay Focus on the Family group, too. Of course, it’s important that women don’t feel unsafe around or threatened by people of the opposite gender. But sanctioning discrimination against transgender individuals is about transphobia, not about taking real steps to keep women safe from gender-based violence.
4. Restricting emergency contraception for some teenagers. Over the past year, the Obama Administration has been embroiled in a contentious fight over access to emergency contraception, which the White House doesn’t believe should be available over the counter to women of all ages. After a federal judge criticized the administration’s decision to impose an age restriction on over-the-counter Plan B as “politically motivated,” President Obama defended the policy by pointing out that this type of contraception may be too “dangerous” for young women to use effectively. But that’s not true. Plan B is actually safer than aspirin, and multiple medical experts have confirmed that it’s safe for girls of all ages to use. Imposing arbitrary restrictions on Plan B isn’t actually a method of keeping teenagers safe. Instead, it reveals a persistent discomfort with teen sexuality that actually fails to keep teens healthy.
Outside of specific policies marketed as tactics to protect women, society often inappropriately emphasizes “women’s safety” when it’s not actually the issue at hand. A pervasive rape culture consistently puts the onus on women to protect themselves from potential violent crimes — women are told not to walk alone, not to dress promiscuously, not to drink, and not to go to parties — rather than emphasizing that people should not feel entitled to commit crimes against women in the first place.