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Why the War on Women is Real – And What You Can Do About It

June 4, 2012

*I presented a version of this blog as a talk to the Southampton Town Democratic Club on Saturday, June 2, 2012.

Some people think the war on women might not be real, or that while there’s a lot of political attention paid to women’s bodies right now it doesn’t constitute a war.  So what evidence is there for a “war on women”?

Let’s start with what’s been going on in the U.S. House of Representatives since its new leadership and new Tea Party members took office back in January 2011. 

First, they tried to redefine “rape” in the original H.R. 3, a bill that would have been an unprecedented rollback of women’s access to abortion.  NARAL Pro-Choice America even dug up an IRS agent who explained to a panel of Congressmembers – none of whom were happy to hear what he had to say – that if this bill became law he would have to start investigating claims of rape as part of income tax audits.

About the same time, they attempted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”  This would have been really, really bad for women (birth control “controversies” aside), and families and single people all across America.

Then, they decided that ending the nation’s family planning program was a great idea to help close the budget deficit – the family planning program that costs the federal government just $317 million a year, and since its inception has prevented more than 20 million unintended pregnancies. 

When they tried to end the nation’s family planning program, they also decided to vote on a measure that would have prohibited Planned Parenthood from receiving any federal money.   This would have meant no Planned Parenthood entity could receive any federal funds for primary and preventive health care, by which I mean: cancer screenings, birth control, HIV screening and testing, STD testing and treatment, prenatal care, health counseling and education. 

Nevermind the fact that there is literally no financial justification for these proposals that would end or limit publicly-supported family planning services.  We know from years of studies that for every public dollar invested in family planning, taxpayers save nearly $4 in the same budget year.  And when I say “family planning,” what I mean is: birth control, cancer screenings, STD testing and treatment, general gynecological health care.

And all of this happened within the first four months of 2011.  But there’s more…

Later in the year, in October, we had the “Let Women Die” bill.  Yes, the House voted on a bill that would have changed the rules governing how emergency departments at hospitals dispense lifesaving care.  In essence, this bill, if it had become law, would have allowed hospitals that receive federal funds to refuse to provide emergency abortion care to women who need it to save their life. 

This spring, the House gutted the Violence Against Women Act.  This was a landmark bill when it was originally passed in 1994 as a bipartisan bill.  Its protections for people who are victims of intimate partner violence (for example, domestic violence and stalking) have been expanded in each of its two reauthorizations, each time with bipartisan support as well.  It’s up for reauthorization again, and the version that the U.S. Senate passed last month further expands protections for LGBTQ people and for American Indian women.  The House version, however, doesn’t just ignore these new provisions – it repeals sections of the law that protect immigrant women and victims of trafficking.

All of these bills have passed the U.S. House of Representatives.  The only reasons they are not law now are the U.S. Senators who recognize that women are human beings, and President Barack Obama.  In April last year, when the House leaders threatened to shut down government entirely unless Planned Parenthood was defunded, President Obama had just one word for them: Nope.  

Thanks to President Obama, and to Senators like New York’s own Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, none of these bills have become law.  That’s why I’m so proud that the Planned Parenthood Action Fund has announced its endorsement of President Barack Obama in the November election, only the third Presidential endorsement in our history.

But, you may be wondering, ok, so all of that is wrong and bad for women.  But is this really a “war”?  Well, let’s look at what’s happening in the states. 

  1. Governor Scott Walker, in Wisconsin, has repealed the state’s equal pay law.  Apparently in Wisconsin some conservatives are no longer even paying lip service to the idea that women deserve equal pay for equal work.
  2. In Georgia last year, a state legislator tried to change the legal term for victims of rape, stalking, and domestic violence to “accuser.”  But victims of other crimes, like burglary, would still be “victims.”
  3. In South Dakota, the state legislature actually considered a bill that would make it legal to murder doctors who provide abortion care.  (You may have to re-read that sentence.  It’s true.)
  4. In Maryland last year, when one county end their participation in Head Start, a low-income children’s preschool program, they justified the cut by saying that women should be home with their kids, not out working.  This is apparently acceptable political speech in Maryland in 2012.
  5. In Mississippi, conservatives pursued a personhood ballot measure last year that would have given fetuses the same legal status as adults.  No one knows how that would have affected inheritance laws.  We know it would have banned most forms of birth control and abortion, and are pretty certain it also would have banned in-vitro fertilization.  After that measure was overwhelmingly defeated in the election, they’re still pursuing it through legislation.
  6. In North Dakota, right now, there is a ballot measure to allow any person or organization to claim that their religion places them above the law.  This measure is so poorly written and confusing that it could open the door to endless litigation and legal wrangling.  And as far as we can tell, it would allow anyone who wants to, to claim a “sincerely held belief” that allows them to break the law.  I’m talking about perpetrators of domestic violence and child abuse.  I’m talking about employers who don’t believe in premarital sex being able to legally fire unmarried employees who are pregnant.  And certainly this would allow employers to decide that their health insurance coverage does not cover birth control.  This measure will be voted on on June 12, so if you know people in North Dakota, tell them to vote no on measure three. 

So yes, there is a war on women.  And while many of us don’t love the phrase because talking about “women” erases a whole huge group of people including most people in same-sex relationships, anyone who identifies as trans or just appears to maybe step outside of what people’s expected idea of “woman” is – there is still absolutely a gendered component to this.  But it is about more than just gender and sexuality.  Another thing that many conservatives are fighting for is voter id laws (hint: they’re bad).  In Mississippi, when the personhood ballot initiative did NOT pass, another one did – a voter id measure.  This measure will disenfranchise African Americans. 

But even if we just stick with the impact of regulations on abortion, the impacts of these disproportionately hurt the people who don’t fit the media portrayal of who’s fighting against the “war on women.”  No wonder a new poll showed that only 1 in 3 women think the war on women is real.  No matter what you call it, there is a large, organized movement in this country right now to roll back women’s and civil and LGBTQ rights.  This is why a spokesperson for Representative Nan Hayworth can talk about throwing acid in the faces of female Democratic Senators.   And he doesn’t get fired, even after an apology that doesn’t really apologize.  Because the war is real.

 So what can we do about it?  Watch – read – talk – and vote in November for the people who respect you as a person.  Here in New York, speak out and make a ruckus with us to force the State Senate to bring the Reproductive Health Act to a vote, so our state can stand out as a progressive leader in the midst of this assault.  Sign up for our action emails, so you can quickly take action on important measures to protect access to sexual and reproductive health for everyone.  And in October, we’ll let you know which candidates, in addition to President Obama, will stand up for your rights.  

 Several of the pieces of evidence I reference can be found here, at MoveOn’s Top10 list.

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