The Battle to Protect Women's Reproductive Rights
By Leila Abolfazli
Here’s to a new year.
Arriving at the National Women’s Law Center three months ago, I never anticipated just how sustained and systemic the efforts to dismantle women’s health and reproductive rights had become. Sure, I had paid attention to the Planned Parenthood defunding fight (which included the “trade” for a ban on DC funding of abortion services and the “this is not meant to be a factual statement” debacle) and had heard about HR 3and the disgusting “forcible rape” debate. Indeed, it was those events that informed my decision to work on reproductive rights issues full time. But even though I was aware of what was going on, it was only when I became involved with the issues on a daily basis where I gained a whole new perspective on just how far those who oppose reproductive rights are going in order to completely unravel women’s rights. And it got me thinking, if so many bad things can happen in just my three months here, what will 2012 look like?
So in order to be prepared for this year, I decided to give a quick review of my first three months – a recap of the numerous anti-choice measures that cropped up in just the final months of 2011. Because when you lay it all out, you can’t ignore how serious these efforts really are.
In my very first week, the House of Representatives voted on HR 358, which literally would allow women to die at hospitals instead of getting the emergency care they need if it included abortion care. Seriously? Ok, next? How about the Rehberg Draft, the House’s version of the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill, which was never reviewed, debated, or marked up in subcommittee before the subcommittee chair posted it online (meaning circumventing the typical process for getting bills through). The draft included defunding Title X (the family planning program), ensuring Planned Parenthood gets no federal funds whatsoever (once again), expanding refusal rights, and taking away funding for implementing the Affordable Care Act. So basically everything that would hurt women’s and their families’ health. Thankfully, these provisions did not make it into the final appropriations bill (although there was a cut in Title X funding), so take a momentary sigh of relief. But with this sigh of relief there is also one of frustration when considering the 2012 appropriations didn’t include provisions providing coverage of abortion in case of rape, incest, or life endangerment for Peace Corps volunteers or permanently banning the global gag rule. Oh, and don’t forget, the bill prevents DC from using its own funds to cover abortion services. Sigh.
Ok, next up we have the debate of the National Defense Authorization Act, where Senator Shaheen was trying to include an amendment in the bill that would correct a very serious gap in coverage for women who rely on the military for insurance. Does it make sense that military women who fight and sacrifice for our country are left without any health insurance coverage for abortion services when they find themselves pregnant after surviving sexual violence? Does it make any more sense that civilian federal employees and those on Medicaid get such coverage and women in the military do not? Despite it making no sense for not providing this coverage to military women, the amendment was blocked from coming to a vote.
Now back to the House again, where there was a hearing in the Subcommittee on Health of the Energy & Commerce Committee on whether the groundbreaking HHS rule guaranteeing no cost sharing coverage of contraception should have an even bigger exemption for more religious entities, like hospitals and universities. Even though the rule in no way forces someone to take contraception, several witnesses at the hearing said that the rule still impinges on hospitals’ and universities’ consciences. Contraception is widely accepted, widely used, and used to be non-controversial. So it makes you think, are we really debating this? Is this where we are now, that even contraception is now up for negotiation? Ugh.
Just weeks after the HHS rule hearing, there was another House hearing, “HHS and the Catholic Church: Examining the Politicization of Grants” where HHS officials were questioned why a grant to help survivors of trafficking (including sex trafficking) wasn’t given to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Although claims were made of an administration bias against the Catholic Church, the issue boiled down to the fact that the Bishops would not provide or refer for all services that were required to get the grant. This includes providing or referring for the full range of gynecological care (remember what we are talking about here – providing care to sex trafficking survivors). The Bishops weren’t going to provide what the grant required, so they didn’t get the grant. Simple enough.
Next, we move on to a real roller coaster of a week. First, the House held a hearing on the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011, a bill that would criminalize race and sex selective abortions. The hearing was unbelievably depressing as members of the House advanced the extremely anti-choice, anti-woman bill in the name of civil rights, even quoting famous civil rights leaders, all the while ignoring the very big elephant in the room – i.e. the fact that those touting this “civil rights” law voted against every other civil rights legislation in the past several years. This one requires a big sigh…
Ok, but no time to dwell on a bill that would basically require doctors to racial profile patients, because now we are at one of the most stunning decisions of the year – i.e. Secretary Sebelius’s alarming decision to overrule the FDA’s conclusion that Plan B should be given over the counter status. Ouch, this one really hurt. And just to add salt to the wound, the next day President Obama said he agreed with the decision,because he didn’t want his daughters to be able to get Plan B between the bubble gum and batteries.Thud, my head has officially hit the table. There are so many problems with this decision (including ignoring the difficulty women can face in obtaining Plan B at a pharmacy) and the subsequent commentary, but, at its core, the decision to deny women over the counter access to contraception is a huge loss for this country.The decision has done great damage to the message about the benefits of access to contraception, women’s ownership of their reproductive health decisions, and elevating science over an incorrect political calculation (yeah sometimes I really want to think global warming isn’t happening, but then I look at the science…). Oh, and did you know that Obama’s daughters could get a lot more dangerous medicines at the pharmacy next to the bubble gum that is a lot cheaper than the $50 needed to buy Plan B… But that’s beside the point, right?
And so, with that great disappointment, 2011 is over, and with it the end of my first three months at the Law Center. Oh, and just as an fyi, this is just what happened on the national level, I did not even step into theNINETY-TWO anti-abortion restrictions passed in the states, which would make this blog even more depressing than it is and, not to mention, as long as the dictionary. But just as a reference - this total is almost THREE times higher the last highest number of state anti-abortion restrictions, which was 34 in 2005.
All of these attacks on women’s reproductive health, what is it about? Is it about controlling women’s decisions? Is it about nervousness about people having sex? Or is it just about scoring political points, and getting reelected?
Whatever it is or isn’t, it is madly saddening. Not only because women’s bodies are being used as political points, but because the conversation that happens in Washington about women’s bodies is completely ignorant of the conversation that is happening in the rest of America. That conversation is that there is an America that is struggling to make it. That there is a stubborn high unemployment rate (which, if the proponents of sex and race selection abortion were really concerned about discrimination and civil rights issues, they would work on legislation to help with the fact that black women in America have been particularly hit by job loss during the recovery). That the income gap is growing, people’s houses are underwater, extreme poverty is rising. These are all serious issues that are affecting Americans. But instead of dealing with these real issues, Washington is focused on women’s reproductive organs and figuring out new and unique ways to restrict, deny, and control them.
It is all very maddening, but if you think of a silver lining, think that the public gets it even if Washington doesn’t. Think about the Personhood Amendment failing in Mississippi by a large margin (yes, Mississippi).
And be ready for 2012.