Women's Rights, Another Round of Defensive Victories

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The Nation

Women's Rights, Another Round of Defensive Victories

In recent months, a bubbling stew of Republican extremism, tone-deafness and rank misogyny aimed at a series of poorly chosen targets (Planned Parenthood, Sandra Fluke, breast cancer activists who also use birth control) have turned pro-choice women into a potent and wide-awake political force. A DCCC appeal decrying the “war on women” raised over $1 million. In last week’s cover story, Elizabeth Mitchell reported that Planned Parenthood drew 1.3 million new supporters in 2011 and raised $3 million in the wake of the Komen controversy alone. Viewed one way, what should be happening is happening: women are waking up (E.J. Graff), making their displeasure known, and wielding political capital accordingly (Irin Carmon). The attacks on birth control are turning off independent and moderate women, who are now taking a second look at the once-beleaguered president. And Obama will be ready for them: he is staking his re-election in large part on women voters.

Moments like this are clarifying, and can act as a teaching tool. Americans, who strongly support access to birth control and the birth control coverage mandate in specific, are catching on to Republican hostility to a key tenet of contemporary American culture. The attacks on birth control are demonstrable proof that the religious right, including the Republican presidential candidates, intends, at root, to re-impose archaic sexual mores and roll back the clock on women’s equality. It is about women, not about unborn babies. Irin credits the amped-up outrage to the “growing realization that these aren’t isolated incidents, but rather systematic attacks based on a worldview that is actively hostile to female self-determination.”

But we can’t forget the conversation we’re having is about defending what we have, not demanding what we don’t. The Affordable Care Act will increase the number of women who, directly or indirectly, access birth control with government support, but the federal government’s family planning program, Title X, already exists and enjoys broad public support. By contrast, the using of healthcare reform as a moment to reopen the debate over public funding for abortion in the debate over healthcare reform was a non-starter. The compromise we ended up with will require women receiving government assistance to obtain insurance through the exchanges to sign up for a separate rider that covers abortion—paid for with their own money. Reconsidering the Hyde Amendment was not up for discussion.

I’m reminded of a superb Nation editorial that ran just after Komen reversed its decision to cut funding to Planned Parenthood: “But the Komen reversal, like the defeat of Mississippi’s Fetal Personhood Amendment this past fall, while sweet, was ultimately a defensive victory. The campaign succeeded not in advancing reproductive healthcare but in preventing a loss of such services. It was fueled not by an ambitious vision but by outrage…”

Obama’s #1 pitch to women voters—that the first bill he signed helps ensure equal pay for equal work—exemplifies this problem. Yes, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act corrects a great injustice—the requirement that employees file a pay discrimination claim within an impossibly short window of time since the first discriminatory paycheck. But the reality is that this only corrected a harmful Supreme Court decision from a year before—and doesn’t address the other factors that drive pay discrimination.

The news today that 31 percent more women are living in states with abortion restrictions than did in 2000 is a timely reminder that we’re living in a world not of our own making. The politics of the moment may be baffling—as Cecile Richards said recently, Mitt Romney’s “attacks [on birth control] make no sense given where the American voter is.” But the underlying reality—that, on a national level, those of us who supports women’s rights aren’t setting the agenda—is crystal clear.

Emily Douglas

Emily Douglas is the senior editor at TheNation.com. Formerly an editor at RH Reality Check, she has written on reproductive health, LGBT issues, women's rights and the law for The American Prospect, The Nation, The Women's Review of Books, RH Reality Check, and other publications. She was a spring 2007 intern at The Nation and graduated from Harvard College.

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