SUBMITTED BY Paula Tavrow
In this election season, Democrats used the catchphrase “war on women” as shorthand for the myriad ways that women’s health, equality and reproductive rights would be jeopardized if the Romney-Ryan ticket prevailed.
Generally, I do not favor applying war language to health, but in this case the attacks were so incessant that it seemed appropriate.
What was at stake? No less than the centerpiece of reproductive rights ““ namely, the individual right to decide when, if and how many children to have. Nearly two decades ago at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the world community upheld this right.
Under former President Bill Clinton, the United States had played a key role in achieving this global consensus.
Earlier, the U.S. had made advances in reproductive rights on the home front, such as passing Title X, which funded family planning services for low-income Americans, and the Supreme Court’s 1973 verdict in Roe v. Wade, which had legalized abortion nationwide, effectively eliminating deaths or injuries in the U.S. from unsafe abortions.
Of course, there were also setbacks, such as the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited federal funding of abortions for indigent women.
During former President George W. Bush’s administration, some high-level officials recommended withdrawing the U.S. from the Cairo accord. They opposed reproductive rights, especially for young people. But they did not make much headway.
Bush did appoint several Supreme Court justices who were antagonistic to Roe v. Wade. He also restricted federal funding of sexuality education to states that failed to implement abstinence-only curricula, so California lost out.
To hinder reproductive rights overseas, Bush re-instituted the global gag rule, which prohibited international organizations from receiving U.S. government funds if they performed abortions, gave abortion information or referrals or lobbied against restrictive abortion laws.
Upon assuming office, one of President Barack Obama’s first acts was to rescind the global gag rule. During the next four years, he appointed two Supreme Court justices who support reproductive rights, and expanded women’s preventive health services and contraceptive coverage through the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare, as it is popularly known).
Obamacare also prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, including reproductive health problems.
Obama and the Democratic Senate stood as a bulwark against efforts by the House of Representatives to restrict abortion access, such as the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.). This bill would have made it illegal to take a minor to another state for an abortion to avoid parental notification and consent laws.
The Senate also killed another bill passed by the House that Ryan co-sponsored, the Protect Life Act, which would have allowed hospitals to refuse to “participate in” or “provide referrals” for abortions.
During the campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney pledged that he would seek to repeal Obamacare “on day one.” He also vowed that he would try to overturn Roe v. Wade by appointing justices who oppose abortion. By making Paul Ryan his running mate, Romney signaled that he favored the kinds of abortion restrictions that Ryan had co-sponsored.
Gov. Romney declared that he fully supported the Republican platform, which restricts women’s access to abortion, even for incest or rape. And he did not distance himself from commentators who slurred Sandra Fluke for advocating for expanded contraceptive coverage or from members of his party who sought to redefine rape.
An Obama victory means that gains achieved in contraceptive coverage will be maintained, abortion will stay legal for now, and overseas organizations won’t lose funding for reproductive health services. However, when it comes to the “war on women,” the Republican House is unlikely to grant a cease-fire.
Tavrow is director of the Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health and an adjunct assistant professor in the department of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.