Turning back the clock on progress

By: - October 22, 2010 3:31 pm

How women and immigrants are likely to fare under a right-wing General Assembly

(Editor's note: During the month of October, NC Policy Watch is releasing a series of special reports that detail some of the policy initiatives that are likely to gain traction in the North Carolina General Assembly if ideologues on the far right assume significant power in 2011. This is the latest of those reports).

"Freedom": It's one of the great ironies ("lies"? injustices"?) of modern American politics that this word is so often appropriated by the far right. Think about it. How often have you heard one of the spokespeople for a far right think tank or political candidate describe his or her work as "pro-freedom" or as promoting a "pro-freedom agenda." One local right-wing group has even dubbed its local organizing groups "Freedom Clubs."

Of course, when one looks beyond the deceptive packaging, it quickly become evident that the "freedom" these folks have in mind is of a very limited variety and for a very limited group of people.

Women and immigrants, for instance, should not look forward to any kind of exciting rebirth of freedom should the far right grab control of the levers of political power in 2011 – that is, unless their bank accounts are extremely large or they're a special kind of favored immigrant like, say, Rupert Murdoch.

Here in North Carolina, in fact, it's almost a sure thing that the women and immigrants will find many of their freedoms under assault.

Women's rights 

Reproductive freedom – particularly for women of low and moderate income – has long served as a dividing line between progressives and conservatives. For reasons that have long baffled a lot of people, the right-wing loses its supposed aversion to big government when it comes to the most of personal of decisions – matters such as access to birth control and comprehensive sexuality education and whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term. On these issues, many conservatives are only too happy to have Big Brother step into the bedroom, the classroom, or the doctor's office and limit what women can learn and what they can do with their own bodies.

In 2010, little seems to have changed. Should an ultra-conservative General Assembly come to power in North Carolina next year, North Carolinians should undoubtedly prepare for number of dramatic attacks on reproductive freedom. And in this case, "dramatic" means "dramatic."

House Republican Leader and would-be Speaker Paul "Skip" Stam has long been one of North Carolina's most ardent spokespersons for the far right social agenda. A former director of the Christian Action League, Wake County Right to Life, and the Christian Legal Society, Stam has written, spoken and lobbied extensively in favor of limiting a woman's right to reproductive freedom. He has described all abortions as the "elimination" of "preborn" children. Indeed, it is not clear if there is any circumstance under which he would favor abortion remaining lawful – even to protect the life or health of the mother or in the earliest stages of a pregnancy.

The platform of the North Carolina GOP (of which Stam was the chief author), seems to indicate that he would not. It states that:

"Unborn children have Constitutional rights to life and liberty. We urge the Supreme Court to overturn Roe vs. Wade. We support a human life amendment."

A "human life amendment" is a proposal to add a 28th Amendment to the United States Constitution that would confer a constitutionally protected right to life and equal protection from the moment of conception – that is, on every fertilized egg. Obviously, for a group that supports such a remarkably extreme position, anything eroding reproductive freedom is likely to be fair game in the 2011 legislature. Indeed, several conservative candidates have stated explicitly that they would favor laws banning abortions in all circumstances – even in cases of child rape and incest.

Unfortunately, human reproduction is not the only area in which a far right legislature would likely seek to limit the rights and opportunities of women. Conservative opposition also seems certain on matters of economic equality and justice. Consider, for instance, the issues of pay equity – the notion that government ought to take affirmative steps to reduce the gap (at least in public employment) between "men's" and "women's" work.

Recent Census statistics confirm that, despite some progress, women receive only about 77 cents in pay for every dollar a man makes. Unfortunately, even under its current, middle-of-the-road political leadership (a team that includes the state's first woman governor!) North Carolina is one of only 11 states that do not have a state pay equity law. Any notion that this sad state of affairs would improve under a far right General Assembly is, of course, beyond remote.

The same seems almost certain for an eminently reasonable proposal to require larger employers in the state to provide full-time employees with paid sick leave. Despite the demonstrably negative effect that the lack of such a requirement has on all workers – and especially women, who serve disproportionately as caregivers when children or elderly family members are home sick – North Carolina lags behind most of the advanced world in its failure to guarantee any such benefit. As with pay equity, however, a conservative General Assembly assures that such a proposal will be "DOA."      

Immigrant rights

As with the rights of women, North Carolina is already a state that charts a fairly conservative course when it comes to newcomers from other countries. An undocumented child who has lived here virtually all of her life, paid taxes and attended the public schools for 13 years must nonetheless pay out-of-state tuition to attend a state university or community college. The state is already an aggressive participant in federal "287(g)" program that uses local law enforcement officers to round up undocumented people (and thereby discourage immigrant participation in crime reporting). Its public benefit and health programs are largely inaccessible to immigrants – often even to those who are lawfully here. Its workplace health and safety programs for workers in the meatpacking and agricultural industries are, to put it mildly, inadequate.    

And still, for a lot of advocacy groups and candidates on the ideological right in the current election cycle, these policies are far from tough enough. In fact, to read some of the campaign websites and literature, you'd think the state was some sort of strange and self-loathing place that actually goes out of its way to favor immigrants over natives. In the event that such people actually come to power, it seems certain that the General Assembly will, at a minimum, seriously consider proposals to

  • Ban undocumented young people from participating in higher education,
  • Mimic Arizona and expand state and local law enforcement efforts to profile and arrest people who appear to be of foreign origin,
  • Further limit efforts to direct essential public health services to immigrant children, and
  • Further limit efforts to use languages other than English in state programs and publications.  

Add to this the almost certainty of further erosion in workplace safety enforcement in industries heavily populated with immigrant workers, and one see just how much more vulnerable this most vulnerable of populations could well become in 2011.

Going forward

As noted, this is the just the latest of several special features regarding some of the likely agenda items of a far right General Assembly in 2011. Be on the lookout next week for a report that summarizes all 13 topics we've reported on in one, handy-to-use and (and handy-to-rue) document.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.