Are U.S. Republicans waging a war on women?
Even on Rush Limbaugh’s Stage of Rage it was a showstopper.
“What does that make her?” the shock jock fumed into his radio mike. “It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.”
And the kicker, “if we are going to pay for your contraceptives — and thus pay for you to have sex — we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
The target of Limbaugh’s anger, and the more controlled chagrin of his conservative fans, was not a high-profile hooker, but a soberly spoken young woman testifying before a congressional panel to oppose a federal health-care exemption that would allow employers with religious beliefs to opt out of covering the cost of contraception.
Limbaugh backed off from his tirade against Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke with a vague apology as advertisers cancelled their contracts. But not before a political tornado that had been brewing for the past two years in the United States spiralled out of control.
“This is absolutely a war against women,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, which advocates for women’s equality. “It’s deliberate, intentional and as serious as a heart attack.”
She was talking about a topic that has just begun to sizzle on the political hotplate: a Republican-led campaign to undermine women’s reproductive rights across the states as well as federal jurisdictions.
Using religious rights, fiscal restraint and an ongoing U.S. culture war as weapons, it has targeted abortion, contraception, even rape laws.
Along the way, it has alienated the party’s moderate members, many of them women, and caused internal anguish at a “coup” carried out by extremists on the conservative far right, who have pulled Republicans into a pit they are scrambling to climb out of before the November presidential election.
To activists, and a sizeable number of ordinary American women, the Blunt Amendment — sponsored by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri — was the latest salvo in an ongoing battle.
And it kept pace with two pieces of Virginia legislation that would have forced women seeking abortion to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound scan, and declared a fertilized egg a “person,” with full constitutional rights. “The Republicans want “government small enough to fit in a uterus,” quipped the Blogosphere.
The Blunt Amendment, defeated last week by a wafer-thin 51-48, would have allowed any employer or insurance plan to refuse coverage of any health-care item or service that offended “religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
President Barack Obama’s health-care legislation had planned to eliminate exemptions for religious institutions that opposed contraception. Instead, he decided they could opt out, but insurance companies would pay. Blunt aimed to close that loophole, while widening the space for employers to avoid coverage on moral grounds.
But its defeat was only one setback in the steady march of state and federal legislation across the decades-old territory of women’s reproductive rights — and two similar bills are pending.
“I can tell you the exact moment when the straw broke the camel’s back,” says Karen Teegarden.
“It was Saturday night and I was talking on the phone to a New York girlfriend about the Blunt amendment and we were saying, ‘Why aren’t we out on the street?’ Then something snapped. We just said ‘Let’s do it.’”
What the Michigan marketing company owner did was open a Facebook account — her first — and give herself a crash course on how to start a protest. The morning after she posted help-wanted requests for organizers, she had 500 replies.
Two weeks later, more than 18,000 women and men have signed up. The protest, called Unite Against the War on Women, is scheduled for March 28 in major cities across the U.S. If it gains momentum, it may be the largest women’s rights demonstration in a generation.
But here’s the head-scratcher: “We’re a truly non-partisan movement, and many Republicans are joining us,” says Teegarden. “Their party isn’t representing the majority of its members any more. They’ve been taken over by a small faction that is powerful and vocal.”
Statistics show that the Republicans do seem to be splashing upstream without a paddle. At least 90 per cent of American women use birth control in their reproductive years, according to a survey by the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute, which advocates for sexual and reproductive health. And about three in 10 terminate a pregnancy by the age of 45.
Pronouncements by dogmatically devout Catholic presidential candidate Rick Santorum have only punched more holes in a strategy that seems doomed to sink.
He has campaigned for criminalization of abortion and blamed it for overloading the social security budget. He’s also opposed contraception, dissed prenatal testing and proclaimed sex a purely procreative function, inside or outside of marriage.
David Frum, a moderate Republican and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, says the early surge of support for Santorum, Limbaugh’s over-the-top outburst against Sandra Fluke, and a Democratic effort to make Republicans “look like the aggressors” in a war against women have created a trap the party will find it hard to wriggle out of.
Obama, he says, is to blame for making the religious exemption for contraception a high-profile political issue when he could have left the volatile issue alone.
“I don’t think anyone on the Republican side at the beginning intended this to be a campaign or project,” he said. “They are horrified and upset. Even if they win and protect the historic status quo and write it into law, they would still lose the media debate.”
Outside the Washington Beltway, however, there is a lesser-known, and more successful, struggle going on against women’s reproductive rights.
“For Republicans, being ‘pro-life’ on abortion is a bit of a litmus test,” says John Green, a political scientist at Ohio’s University of Akron who specializes in religion and politics. “It’s hard to get a nomination if you don’t pass the test.”
At state level, he points out, efforts to push through laws restricting abortion have been unrelenting.
“Because of (the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision) Roe v. Wade, abortion can’t be prohibited outright except in very limited circumstances, so efforts have been made to make it more difficult. The Republican and Democratic parties are coalitions. All Republicans may not agree with socially conservative views, but there are enough who are vocal about them. A lot of the measures to change laws are the result of that.”
Restrictions on abortion have spiked between 2010 and 2012, after the Republican Party took over the federal House of Representatives and more state legislatures.
In 2011, a record 92 new abortion restrictions passed in 24 states, breaking the previous record of 34.
“Five states enacted provisions that require women seeking an abortion to obtain counselling that includes misinformation about the procedure,” says a Guttmacher survey, “bringing to 16 the number of states that require that women be given misleading information prior to having an abortion.”
That includes scientifically questionable “facts,” as in North Dakota, where women are told abortion puts them at increased risk of breast cancer, and North Carolina, which counsels that their future fertility and mental health may be threatened.
More than a dozen states, meanwhile, adopted curbs on insurance coverage for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or threat to a woman’s life. Oklahoma went farther, refusing to cover rape and incest victims.
Other states barred the use of public funds to train medical staff in abortion procedures.
North Carolina, Texas and Utah use the proceeds from selling “Choose Life” licence plates to fund “alternatives” to abortion.
And five states order women to undergo ultrasound scans prior to abortion, and give them the “opportunity” to view the fetus.
In the most notorious example, red-faced Virginia legislators recently backtracked on legislation requiring women seeking abortion to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound, setting off another heated cross-country debate.
Virginia also shelved a radical “personhood” bill that would state that life begins at conception — giving constitutional rights to fertilized eggs and opening women and abortion service providers to lawsuits, and prosecution for murder or involuntary manslaughter.
A similar bill is set to pass in Oklahoma, while others were defeated in Colorado and Mississippi.
Meanwhile, the beat of new legislation goes on.
“We’re seeing numbers of bills replicating themselves over and over again through the states,” says Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher’s state issues manager. “When a couple of test-case states pass legislation, others will follow along.”
Not only abortion is targeted by conservative state lawmakers.
“Some states are restricting family planning funding, so access to contraception is limited. It affects poorer and younger women who are less adept in understanding the system and have fewer resources,” says Nash.
Planned Parenthood, a major health-care provider for poor women, has also been hit with funding restrictions. And some states have moved to restrict sex and HIV/AIDs education in schools and promote counselling of abstinence.
What is driving this assault on women’s reproductive rights, a.k.a. the War on Women?
“It’s become a major ideology of the Republican Party,” says Jon O’Brien, president of Washington-based Catholics for Choice, an international advocacy group of Catholics who believe women should follow their conscience in reproductive matters. “People with (more liberal) records are being driven out.”
Polls seem to agree. They show the percentage of Republicans who describe themselves as “moderate” has plummeted in the last decade from 31 per cent to 23 per cent. But while evangelical Christians had a grip on the conservative agenda in George W. Bush’s day, the Catholic bishops are now taking the helm, says O’Brien.
“The Republicans are playing to them because they think if they can galvanize just enough Catholic voters, they will control the way the presidency goes.”
But he adds, “when you look at what Catholic voters want, it’s clear. It’s health care, education and putting food on the table. Abortion is way down the list, and the idea that politicians are debating birth control is simply extraordinary.”
The war over reproductive rights may never be over. But the Republican primaries will, and with them the contest to win over the most conservative voters. If the winner is Mitt Romney, the shrill rhetoric will fade to background noise, while the real battle goes on outside the Beltway.
“Once Romney has sewn up the nomination you won’t hear any more about it,” says Frum. “But the greatest danger is not what voters remember, but what their impressions are. These are things that may be untrue, but can never be erased.”
This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.