Feminists of two minds about women’s rights

Steve Chapman

Feminists champion a woman’s right to choose. They have always taken the position that the right to privacy includes the right to decide what happens to their own bodies. They think such a personal decision should be made by individual women and their physicians, free from meddling politicians.
As Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Gloria Feldt puts it, “We stand for the principle that women — in consultation with their families and their physicians — should make their own reproductive and health decisions. Not politicians and not the government.”
But this week, they changed their minds.
Not about abortion. On that intimate issue of women’s physical autonomy, they still believe the government should get out and stay out. But when it comes to breast implants, they think women can’t be trusted to decide for themselves. On the former question, they sound like hard-core libertarians. On the latter, they are models of intrusive paternalism.
The Food and Drug Administration held hearings this week on whether to rescind its 1992 prohibition on most silicone gel implants. That ban was imposed amid charges that the devices were ravaging women’s health, causing everything from breast cancer to lupus. An avalanche of lawsuits pushed one of the chief manufacturers, Dow Corning, into bankruptcy, and other companies had to pay compensation for alleged injuries.
But in the succeeding years, we’ve learned the panic was unfounded. One scientific study after another has found that silicone implants pose no serious health risks.
In 1999, a committee of experts commissioned by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences, issued a report saying, “Some women with breast implants are indeed very ill, and the IOM panel is very sympathetic to their distress. However, it can find no evidence that these women are ill because of their implants.”
The only real safety problems, it found, involve ruptures, infections and hardening of breast tissue — problems that also exist for saline implants, which were not banned.
The exonerating evidence ought to satisfy reasonable people. But when the government reopened the issue, the Feminist Majority Foundation objected: “Another generation of women should not suffer because the FDA has bowed to pressure from manufacturers and plastic surgeons.” The federal government, it said, “must protect women from silicone gel breast implants.”
The National Organization for Women raised the same alarm.
This is not entirely surprising. As journalist William Saletan notes in his new book, “Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War” (University of California Press), abortion rights advocates figured out long ago from polling data that the best way to advance their cause was to appropriate the language of libertarians and conservatives.
Saletan, who favors abortion rights, quotes Kate Michelman, head of NARAL Pro-Choice America, making the case in terms that could have been lifted from the National Rifle Association, advocates of drug legalization or Ronald Reagan. The Constitution, she said, protects liberty “by carving out those spheres of American life which are off-bounds to state regulation. It defines what we can do by telling the government what it cannot do.”
So why is their approach so different in the case of breast implants?
It may be simply that, as Saletan says, “interest groups use whatever argument works in the case at hand.” It may be that feminist organizations see abortion as a blow against male domination and breast implants as a concession to it. Or it may be that they are just confused.
But if they lose the fight over FDA policy, it will be largely their own fault. A lot of women who want access to breast implants think what they do with their bodies is a decision they should make with their doctors, free of government interference. Where did they get that idea?

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate.