From presidential politics to the halls of Congress to state legislatures across the nation, scores of lawmakers and politicians have made the curious decision to launch an assault on women’s rights.
Despite an incumbent president vulnerable thanks to persistent economic worries and states faced with ills ranging from budget deficits to foreclosure crises, America’s current crop of political leaders are litigating contraception and “fetal personhood” in the year 2012. Women in the United States arguably have not faced the construction of such legislative barriers since the suffrage movement.
Seizing the most headlines this month has been the public spat between the Catholic Church and the federal government over birth control, which has developed into a one-sided national discussion; the Church and conservative lawmakers seeking to place restrictions on contraception against the overwhelming majority of the country (including 98 percent of Catholics) that heartily approves of the general theory and use of birth control.
The Obama administration’s ruling that religious organizations employing and serving a significant number of people outside of their own religion must include access to contraception as part of employer-provided health insurance ignited a firestorm among religious leaders. The U.S. Catholic Church — the group most likely to be affected by the law thanks to its number of public hospitals, schools and other institutions — launched an immediate protest.
The government eventually relented, offering a compromise ridiculed by experts and progressive as a dangerous risk to women’s health and rights. Catholic bishops still refused to acquiesce, claiming “moral concerns” about the idea of including any kind of birth control coverage in employer-provided insurance since church doctrines preach against the use of contraceptives.
U.S. Catholic Church leaders said they will fight President Barack Obama’s controversial birth-control insurance coverage policy despite his compromise that religious employers would not have to offer free contraceptives for workers, shifting the responsibility to insurers.
In an abrupt policy shift aimed at trying to end a growing election-year firestorm, Obama on Friday announced the compromise.
But the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said its concerns were not addressed and cited “serious moral concerns.”
In a statement issued Friday evening, the bishops said Obama’s proposal “continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deeply held convictions.”
“We will therefore continue – with no less vigor, no less sense of urgency – our efforts to correct this problem through the other two branches of government,” the bishops said in urging Congress to take action to overturn the rule.
Religious sensitivities aside, the question of birth control on a constitutional level was answered by the U.S. Supreme Court nearly half a century ago in the famous “Griswold v. Connecticut” decision. The present day brouhaha is literally an anachronism from the 1960′s.
Nonetheless, contraception has suddenly become a hot button — if not one-sided — issue for the current campaign season. “The pill” has become a political football, which is how American taxpayers ended up paying for a congressional hearing on Thursday that delved into the question of contraception and its role in American society.
Chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) the House hearing was devoted to the Obama administration’s mandate and the religious community’s opposition to it, with the Republican majority accusing the government of launching an attack on religious freedoms.
But in the officially sanctioned debate over birth control — a decidedly ”female” decision — not a single woman was called upon as a witness. Such an oversight caused quite a stir with the female lawmakers sitting in on the conversation.
A Capitol Hill hearing that was supposed to be about religious freedom and a mandate that health insurers cover contraception in the United States began as an argument about whether Democrats could add a woman to the all-male panel.
“Where are the women?” the minority Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., asked early in the hearing.
She criticized the Republican committee chairman, Rep. Darrel Issa, for wanting to “roll back the fundamental rights of women to a time when the government thought what happens in the bedroom is their business.”
“We will not be forced back to that primitive era,” she said.
To ask Foster Friess, a conservative multi-millionaire currently bankrolling a super-PAC supporting Republican presidential frontrunner Rick Santorum, American women would be better off to forgo the “costly” modern methods and simply put a “Bayer aspirin…between their knees.”
Foster Friess, the mega donor behind the pro-Rick Santorum Super PAC, dismissed questions about his patron’s controversial views on women in combat, contraception and gay marriage.
He went on: “On this contraceptive thing, my Gosh it’s such [sic] inexpensive,” he added. “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.”
New fronts in the war on a woman’s right to choose have developed across the United States. In Texas, where last year lawmakers passed one of the strictest laws regarding abortion tights at the time, a federal court has blocked a challenge to the state law mandating sonograms before any abortion procedure. Women’s health advocates complain that the ruling has “violated” the First Amendment rights of Texas women.
This week alone, two states have approved unprecedented restrictions on abortion rights that could have far-reaching legal and health consequences.
In Virginia on Tuesday, the radical conservative legislature passed a pair of bills that instantly give the the commonwealth some of the most extreme laws barring a women’s right to choose in the nation. Lawmakers passed legislation that would require ultrasounds before any abortion procedure and a so-called “personhood bill,” a law considered the last step before an outright ban on abortion that bestows the rights of ”personhood” on “unborn children” almost from the moment on conception.
Virginia’s “personhood” law is a virtual copy of a referendum that failed in Mississippi last year. Contraception is also under attack with this law, because its language bars the use and access to certain form of birth control. Critics argue the legislation could be used to place an outright ban on birth control in the future.
The Tuesday passage in Virginia of two of the strictest anti-abortion bills in the country has sparked fierce debate over abortion rights the battleground state, with Democrats decrying the acts as an unprecedented encroachment on women’s rights as Republicans push to move the legislation forward.
One bill, Republican Del. Bob Marshall’s House bill 1, would define personhood at conception and “provides that unborn children at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of the Commonwealth.” The second bill requires that women be required to undergo an ultrasound procedure prior to having an abortion.
The personhood bill, which passed by 66-32 in the Virginia state House, does not ban abortions, the legality of which are protected under the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade. It would, however, make illegal certain types of contraceptive measures, including emergency contraception. Women’s health advocates say it could also open the door to banning birth control pills and intrauterine devices (IUD).
Going even further than Virginia, lawmakers in Oklahoma approved legislation this week that would create a similar “personhood law.” More extreme than any law currently in effect, Oklahoma has moved to the brink of a challenge to Roe v. Wade by virtually outlawing abortion.
The Oklahoma state Senate passed a “Personhood Act” that would give all human embryos individual rights from the instant of conception, effectively banning abortions and most forms of contraception. Most significantly, there is no exception for cases of rape, incest, or instances where a mother’s life could be saved. The state Senate President said he is “proud” to “stand up” for the “right to life.”
Oklahoma lawmakers edged closer toward trying to outlaw abortion on Wednesday by approving “personhood” legislation that gives individual rights to an embryo from the moment of conception.
The Republican-controlled state Senate voted 34-8 to pass the “Personhood Act” which defines the word person under state law to include unborn children from the moment of conception.
The measure now goes to the state House where pro-life Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than a 2-1 margin.
Oklahoma’s Republican Governor Mary Fallin, who signed every anti-abortion bill sent to her last year, did not issue a reaction to the latest right-to-life measure.
“Oklahoma is a conservative pro-life state-we are proud to stand up for what we know is right,” Senate Pro Tempore President Brian Bingman, a Republican, said.
“This bill is one of many Senate Republicans have advanced which affirms the right to life and I am proud to support it,” he added.
But Martha Skeeters, president of the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, said that a state law declaring that life begins at conception could have “dire consequences.”
The bill offers no exceptions in the case of a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest and could mean some forms of contraception such as the “morning after pill” would be unavailable, she said.