Playing Politics with Women’s Bodies - The Battle Over Contraceptive Access Exposes Both Parties
By Kelly Bellin
With each passing week, the right-wing fundamentalists tighten their grip over the Republican Party. Their latest frenzied attempt to limit women’s access to contraception will likely backfire on Republicans electorally. Yet as Obama responds with concessions, this right-wing ideological offensive dominates the public debate.
The mess started when the Obama Administration announced early this year that religious exemptions for the health care mandate to provide contraception would be limited to houses of worship. Right-wing religious leaders objected, demanding that religiously affiliated organizations such as hospitals and universities also be exempted, even when employees covered are not primarily of the same faith.
Church and Republican leaders launched a firestorm, accusing President Obama of violating religious freedom and Republicans in the Senate narrowly lost a vote to exempt religious affiliated employers from covering any medical care deemed to violate their beliefs! Electorally, these antics play into the Democrats’ hand, yet mainstream women’s groups have praised Obama as a champion of reproductive rights.
Enter Rush Limbaugh
An all-male House Committee meeting was convened to decide if the contraceptive mandate violated religious freedom. Chairmen Rep. Derrell Issa rejected a request to hear testimony from a woman, Sandra Fluke, to the panel, saying: “the hearing is not about reproductive rights and contraception.”
Yet Rush Limbaugh, referring to Fluke, revealed the real outlook of Republican leaders when he said: “Who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? Makes her a prostitute.” The next day he defended his statement, calling on all “Feminazis” to make sex videos in exchange for insurers covering their contraception.
The outcry against Limbaugh’s hate-speech was swift and widespread. Dozens of companies have been pressured to pull their ads from Limbaugh’s show. The entire debate has enraged millions of women, and calls for protests in all state capitols on April 28th may get a major response. If the big women’s organizations put their full resources into the protests, those millions could be brought into the streets.
Even as the right-wing bigots further isolated themselves, Obama felt compelled to make concessions to them. First, Obama allotted religious employers another year to comply with the federal mandate, and then allowed nonprofit religious employers to shift the cost of coverage to the health insurance companies instead. By compromising, Obama has let the religious right take over a debate that should not even exist – whether or not women have a right to contraceptive health care!
The contraception mandate is widely regarded as an election maneuver to quell growing uproar among women at Obama’s betrayals. In December, the White House overruled the FDA’s decision to give Plan B over-the-counter status. Feeding into the right-wing stigmatization of contraception, Obama said he didn’t want young women picking up Plan B “between the bubblegum and the batteries.”
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America replied: “As we’re looking at 2012, we have a key segment of women’s voters, and it’s our job to show them the clear difference between President Obama and the alternatives. The decision last week makes it harder for us to do that.”
It turns out Nancy Keenan is easily appeased. Obama’s ruling to tighten religious exemptions “makes it clear that President Obama is firmly committed to protecting women’s health,” Keenan told NARAL supporters in January. Such statements cover up the cynical calculations really behind Obama’s decision.
In 2008, women turned out in record numbers to vote, and a large majority voted for Obama, leading many to hail him as the first “feminist president.” However, women have been impacted hardest by Obama’s trail of broken promises and pro-corporate policies. In 2010, many women stayed home, and half the women who voted cast ballots for Republicans.
Obama’s recent legislation to satisfy women is a political necessity for his 2012 campaign. The most recent Washington Post poll reports 50% of women outright disapprove of Obama’s presidency. As a tight election looms, one of Obama’s campaign officials promised that targeted marketing will focus on women, with woman-to-woman phone banking to inform once-supporters of the gains Obama has made for them (ABC News, 11/9/11).
Women don’t need to be told what their situation is under the Obama administration. Last year, states passed a record 92 restrictions on access to reproductive health services. In September the Census Bureau reported more than 40% of single mothers are now in poverty, and a record number of women live in “extreme poverty” – earning less than half the poverty line. One in five women have no form of health insurance. Stepping back, Obama’s stand on the contraception issue, itself lackluster, is a fragile twig to hold onto amid the flood of bipartisan budget cuts and right-wing attacks.
Obama, like the Republicans, is playing politics with women’s reproductive rights. Rather than going onto the offensive, boldly campaigning on why all women have the right to access contraception, he has remained purely defensive and tried to duck the issue. President Obama supports women’s rights as a wedge issue, only granting limited reforms under pressure or fear losing votes.
2011 was a year of unprecedented attack on women, but it was not a year of unprecedented fight back. Mainstream feminist groups promote the Democratic Party as our progressive option, but the Democrats are not the way forward for women. As history demonstrates, it is through mass struggle, organized resistance and political independence that working class women have forced politicians to concede.
Susan G Komen for the Cure deprives 150,000+ women life-saving breast exams per year through political attack on Planned Parenthood
SGKomen is the prime example of a mainstream enterprise that builds itself up as a progressive organization, but in reality only capitalizes on the oppression of the working class. It markets pink memorabilia, selling it to people with good intentions in raising awareness of breast cancer, yet misleading them as to where that money goes and giving them a false sense of what there really is to be done about public health.
By almost any measure, 2011 saw unprecedented attention to issues related to reproductive health and rights at the state level. In all 50 states, legislators introduced more than 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions, a sharp increase from the 950 introduced in 2010. By year’s end, 135 of these provisions had been enacted in 36 states, again an increase from the 89 enacted in 2010 and the 77 enacted in 2009.
Fully 68% of these new provisions, 92 provisions in 24 states, restrict access to abortion services, a striking increase from last year, when 26% of new provisions restricted abortion. The 92 new abortion restrictions shattered the previous record of 34 abortion restrictions adopted in 2005.
Additionally, prohibitions on insurance coverage of abortion procedures have made it infinitely more difficult for working class women to have access to abortion services. While abortion may yet be legal on paper, women’s reproductive rights are being cut vigorously by right wing attacks that face little organized opposition from Democrats or even the official women’s organization, apart from e-mail blasts asking for donations and appeals to call unresponsive legislatures. Gone are the days when the mainstream women’s groups would organize mass demonstrations in the face of such unprecedented attacks.