What's driving the war on women's rights?

The anti-women faction of the Republican Party is dominating the discussion in mainstream politics--and the Democrats' response has been to let them.

Republican presidential contenders Rick Santorum and Mitt RomneyRepublican presidential contenders Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney

"VIRGINIA IS for lovers," goes the state's tourism motto. But if its right-wing politicians get their way, Virginia will be for turning women into human incubators.

Lawmakers in Virginia and Oklahoma made headlines in February for trying to pass "fetal personhood" laws aimed at outlawing all abortions. But they're by no means alone in their attempts to legislate away abortion rights one procedure and one restriction at a time. The war on women's rights has grown so hysterical this year that the Republican presidential candidates are seriously proposing to restrict contraception--something that 99 percent of women who are sexually active with men will use in their lifetime.

That's why it's so important the Virginia bill sparked nationwide outrage--including protests by hundreds of women and men surrounding the state Capitol to delay a vote. This shows it's possible to turn back the war on women's rights--not, as mainstream women's groups claim, by voting for the Democrats, but by building an unapologetic fight that defends every woman's right to control her own body.

In February, the Virginia House of Delegates passed two bills by wide margins--one that would have given fetuses the legal rights of people, and another that would have forced women seeking an abortion to first undergo an invasive procedure known as a transvaginal ultrasound.

Other bills defining life as beginning at conception are advancing in Oklahoma--one version passed the Oklahoma Senate in mid-February by a margin of 34-8. Although that bill's sponsor says that the legislation wouldn't outlaw abortion, that's clearly the underlying aim. The "personhood" bill contains no exceptions, meaning that women who become pregnant as a result of rape or incest could be forced to carry a pregnancy to term, and women whose pregnancies put their lives at risk would have to face physical trauma and even death.

The bill's sponsors acknowledge that it would likely be found unconstitutional by the courts, but ultimately, the aim is to further the war on women's rights.

While shocking, these laws aren't unique. In addition to Virginia and Oklahoma, at least eight other states have introduced "personhood" bills since January. Seven states already mandate an ultrasound before an abortion.

These laws aren't about "protecting life." They are, at heart, about rolling back a woman's right to choose as part of a general attack all women's rights. The anti-choice fanatics, who claim, like all conservatives, to want "smaller government," have no trouble declaring that the government, not women, should decide what happens to women's bodies.

There's no doubt about it: these people hate women and would have no problem seeing a return to back-alley abortions. Take Rick Santorum's biggest financial backer, millionaire Foster Friess, who recently joked that if women are concerned about birth control, they should take a page from his youth: "You know, back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraception. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly."

Friess should be hounded out of public life for such a statement. Instead, because his fortune is fueling the rising campaign of Santorum, the media takes him seriously, rather than dismissing him as an out-of-touch sexist and bigot.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

HOW, IN 21st century America, could these Neanderthals be setting the terms of the debate about what women should be able to do with their bodies?

Most people, of course, don't support banning birth control or preventing rape victims from obtaining abortions. Fetal "personhood" laws have been put on the ballot as referendums and failed--most recently in Mississippi, where the measure lost by a wide margin despite the state's generally conservative electorate.

No doubt, the Republican Party establishment as a whole isn't fanatically devoted to outlawing abortion or returning to the days when women were kept out of the workforce. Either outcome would pose a few problems for Corporate America, for example. But none of them will stand up to the anti-women fanatics who are speaking for the party.

That's because the far-right social conservatives play a useful role for the Republican Party as a whole. They are the attack dogs--foaming at the mouth and straining at the leash--that whip up the party's right-wing base in an election year to go to the polls and "protect" conservative values.

Thus, while frontrunner Mitt Romney may not be the anti-choice zealot that Rick Santorum is, Romney won't oppose Santorum's unhinged views on abortion or birth control--on the contrary, he has continually moved to the right during the primaries in an attempt to prove that he's a "real conservative."

So Santorum can froth at the mouth about the evils of forcing employers to cover contraception, and his crackpot ideas get accepted as a legitimate part of the debate. Such is the state of the first party of American business in what we're regularly told is the "world's greatest democracy."

On a wider scale, though, the U.S. ruling class has relied in important ways on the rise of the Christian Right since the 1980s. Social conservatives have been deployed as shock troops in the broader campaign against the gains made by the 1960s social movements. Like the Tea Partiers, the Religious Right may become an embarrassment at times, but it serves the purpose of making it seem like there is grassroots fervor for conservative ideology and policies.

But the other reason the anti-women fanatics get a hearing in mainstream politics is because the response from their official opponents--the Democratic Party--has been so pathetic.

A few Democrats have at least made an effort to expose the insanity of the latest attacks on women's rights. In Virginia, state Sen. Janet Howell sponsored an amendment to the ultrasound bill that would have required rectal prostate exams for men seeking Viagra prescriptions, while in Oklahoma, state Sen. Constance Johnson proposed language stating that "any action in which a man ejaculates or otherwise deposits semen anywhere but in a woman's vagina shall be interpreted and construed as an action against an unborn child."

But these are the exceptions, not the rule, in the Democratic Party.

The Democrats are playing the election-year strategy game as well. They know that a frenzied right wing is the best reason they can give loyal Democratic supporters why they should work like hell to turn out voters in November--regardless of whether the party has delivered anything they expected from Barack Obama when he won the election in 2008.

When it comes to women's right, this "lesser-evil" game means that women ultimately lose. The right wing has been very effective, since the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion, at chipping away at women's right to choose. Hundreds of anti-abortion laws have been proposed and many passed just during Obama's term in office.

And Obama said little to defend the right of women to have access to birth control after the manufactured right-wing uproar over federal regulations to make employers cover contraception for female employees under their insurance plans. Instead, the administration let the Religious Right take over the debate.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THIS HAS been the dismal picture for too many years, and it's why the case of Virginia, where the right wing didn't get its way, is so instructive. It was only after a barrage of public criticism and activism that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell backed off his support for the two anti-choice measures, and then the Virginia state Senate subsequently delayed the vote on the ultrasound bill and sent the personhood proposal back to committee until 2013.

Discussion of the proposals spurred expressions of outrage from thousands of women and men that the ultrasound legislation would have forced women to undergo the equivalent of state rape.

Even more importantly, the action of some 1,400 protesters at the Virginia Capitol building was instrumental in delaying the Senate votes. When a Senate committee first advanced the personhood bill, pro-choice advocates inside the General Assembly chamber cried out: "Shame! Shame! Shame! Shame on you!" Once ejected from the building, protesters lined the sidewalks, chanting, "What do we want? CHOICE! When do we want it? NOW!"

According to the Associated Press, "Molly Vick of Richmond said it was her first time to take part in a protest, but the issue was too infuriating and compelling. On her lavender shirt, she wore a sticker that said 'Say No to State-Mandated Rape.' Just beneath the beltline of her blue jeans was a strip of yellow tape that read 'Private Property: Keep Out.'"

Of course, our rights certainly aren't safe because a few legislators backed off slightly. In Virginia, a "compromise" on the ultrasound bill, which passed the Virgnia Senate as this article went to press, would still require women to undergo a less obtrusive ultrasound. This is still an unacceptable restriction on a woman's right to choose.

This election year, we'll be told many times that we have to vote for Barack Obama and the Democrats in order to keep abortion legal against the threat of a President Romney or Santorum.

But we should look to the protesters in Virginia for the real example of how to stand up for our rights. And we should remember this, too: It wasn't a Democrat in the White House that gave women the right to abortion, but a fighting women's rights movement in the 1960s and '70s that made all the difference.

That's the kind of movement that neither party wants to see today--and the kind of movement we have to build.