Plan Ahead: A Historical Look at Rape Insurance in Michigan

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It’s a day that ends in “y” so there’s been another strike by the increasingly insane Republican Party against “ObamaCare” and women’s reproductive freedom – this time in Michigan. As reported initially in the Detroit Free Press, a Michigan state law just went into effect that will require women to purchase additional insurance if they want abortion coverage.

In other words, girlfriends, be prepared for all possible consequences of rape, incest, birth defects, dangerous pregnancies and anything else you can think of! I mean, as a woman, you should expect these problems anyway. Don’t worry, though! We have in no way entered a bizarre dystopian universe already envisioned by Margaret Atwood in the 1980s.

Though the good folks at Jezebel already stole all my other jokes, as one of the occasional lady bloggers of ToM, I couldn’t let this one go by without adding my own historically-minded two cents. There have been some other thoughtful posts floating around the interwebs about the sheer audacity of the new “Rape Insurance” law (including this one by The Nation’s Jessica Valenti). Folks are noting that the measure just piles on to an already generally misogynistic culture of rape – where it’s expected that women must prepare for the inevitability of sexual attacks and assault (see our previous discussion of the Steubenville case). When even a health insurance policy requires women to think about the possibility of assault and its financial and health consequences, there’s a serious problem.

Fortunately, it should be noted that the saner politicians in Michigan have emphatically, loudly and repeatedly rejected this bill. And, as ThinkProgress reported this week, pro-choice activists still have a chance at repealing the bill, so perhaps we can hold off on panicking just yet.

But what remains equally upsetting is that these legislative developments in Michigan have sent us straight back to the sexual politics of the nineteenth century, only worse, because the meanings of “private right” and “public duty” have been distorted in our current political system. Republicans and right-to-lifers who support measures like this express an inherently contradictory stance. They reject Obamacare on the basis of a “right to privacy” or spurious complaints over restricted access to care, while incongruously advocating at the same time for state intervention in personal health decisions on the basis of public good. Their arguments employ a simply astonishing legal disconnect.

And frankly this worldview seems more radical than some of the most explicitly patriarchal legal and judicial abortion policies of turn-of-the-century America. This is not to say that abortion was not contested in those days – it was, with many referring to it as the “Evil of the Age.” Plenty of laws existed on the books of state legislatures that outlawed abortion. But as historians like Michael Grossberg, Linda Gordon, Janet Farrell Brodie and others have found, judges often ignored or only slapped the hands of women who sought or providers who performed abortions, considering punishment to be an infringement on private morality. As a result, the right to obtain a safe and legal abortion initially had fewer restrictions in the nineteenth century because of the relative flexibility of the common law, and a less muddied understanding of what constituted “public” and “private.”

On the other hand – demoralizing as it is – perhaps we should simply view the “Rape Insurance” law as part of a long historical trajectory of regulating sex through various legal mechanisms, beginning with the Comstock laws. New York vice reformer Anthony Comstock in the 1870s arrested purveyors and consumers of information through the mail regarding sex, birth control and abortion, first under the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, and then after the passage of the “Comstock Law” which defined these materials as obscene. He arrested countless women and men, not just for mailing items of “pornography,” but also health information, even pamphlets on venereal disease. Obviously, despite Comstock’s best efforts, this did not prevent people from viewing, reading or discussing “obscene” materials, nor did it stop the practices of abortion or birth control. Instead, it simply provided another way to punish people – women in particular – who attempted to access them, through a legal framework of “obscenity.”

In the same way the Comstock law did not specifically outlaw abortion itself, proponents of the Michigan law emphasize that it does not restrict access to abortion. It only prevents taxpayer dollars that go the new federally mandated health insurance from paying for “elective procedures.”  Yet restricting access to abortion by requiring women to “think ahead’ if they want it covered by their policy is merely a way for Republicans to protest their discontent with the tax implications for Obamacare and the legality of of the health insurance law itself.

But let’s be honest – ultimately, this isn’t about taxes, or Obamacare, really. It’s just another avenue for them to legislate and direct women’s choices. In this respect, it might as well be 1813 or 1913, not 2013.

Lauren MacIvor Thompson is a fourth-year doctoral candidate at Georgia State University. Her dissertation focuses on the influence of  eugenics, spiritualism and the law on the Progressive Era women’s movement. Her work has appeared in the University of Virginia’s Essays in History and the Southern Historian.  

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