The Grand Old Party and Women

by: Blaine Skrainka

April 22, 2012

It’s hard to avoid the headlines accusing Republicans of waging a ‘war on women.’ Questionable semantics aside, there are certainly a broad scope of policy decisions and initiatives that call into question the sincerity of the GOP’s commitment to supporting women. National issues get a lot of coverage, but much of the action is happening at the state level, and what you will find time after time are inconsistencies in the supposed ideological commitment to small government.
Cartoon by Mike Luckovich
Political Cartoon by Mike Luckovich

Unfortunately these debates often turn to polling and the political horse race, but Margaret Talbot reminds us in a piece in The New Yorker that women do not vote in ‘monolithic blocs.’ She points out that 52 percent of women think that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, while 42 percent think that it should be illegal. These attitudes actually poll similarly between men and women, “Education level turns out to be a more reliable predictor of attitude on abortion than gender, with college-educated Americans the most likely to say it should be legal in most cases.”

When asked if there “is any reason at all for an abortion,” including rape and incest, Sharron Angle, who unsuccessfully challenged Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s seat in last year’s election responded: “Not in my book. You know, I’m a Christian and I believe that God has a plan and a purpose for each one of our lives and that he can intercede in all kinds of situations and we need to have a little faith in many things.”

Libertarian darling Rand Paul, Senator from Kentucky and son of Presidential candidate Ron Paul, is another in a growing list of conservatives that, despite their pledge of allegiance to small government, believe in legislating against abortion under any circumstances. This is a country where one in four women are likely to be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

We all know the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, but there is an ongoing campaign at the state level to restrict access (see: so-called ‘personhood’ amendments), and to make the experience tedious and humiliating with things like government-mandated, medically unnecessary, transvaginal ultrasounds. Mother Jones reports that twenty states already have laws dictating rules for ultrasounds, with seven states pushing similarly restrictive legislation this last year.

Conservatives have a longstanding history of legislating women’s health issues. In the past, GOP lawmakers and their appointed agency officials at the FDA have held up approval and access to emergency over-the-counter contraception, commonly called Plan B, and the HPV vaccine Gardasil, in big government attempts to curb “extreme promiscuous behaviors.”

It’s worth noting that with the proliferation of sexual education and use of contraception, teen birth rates have fallen to an all-time low. States with the most restrictive access to contraception and abortion are usually those who push abstinence-only sex ed. Not surprisingly, these states ( including Mississippi, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama) have the highest teen pregnancy rates.

Many of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, often pejoratively referred to as ‘Obamacare’, have yet to be enacted, but one that did recently go into effect was the requirement that insurers provide, free of co-pay or deductible, all FDA-approved forms of contraception. It also prohibits lifetime caps. While houses of worship were exempted, the mandate included large religious institutions like hospitals or universities that employ tens of thousands of women that do not necessarily subscribe to the institution’s religion. In spite of the fact that 98 percent of Catholic women have used birth control at some point in their lives, the male-dominated clergy decried religious persecution.
Sandra Fluke Congressional Testimony

The media jumped and committee hearings ensued. Recall that Sandra Fluke’s congressional testimony, for which GOP tastemaker Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut,” was held in response to Republican Congressman Darrell Issa’s all-male panel on birth control following the original announcement from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The GOP legislative response: The Blunt Amendment, named for the junior Senator out of Missouri, would have allowed any employer to opt out of providing health care coverage they disagree with on moral grounds (read: for any reason they feel like). The amendment was struck down on a party line vote. In the end, HHS extended a compromise where, “the religious employer will not be required to provide, pay for or refer for contraception coverage, but her insurance company will be required to directly offer her contraceptive care free of charge.”

Last week, there was an outbreak of manufactured controversy surrounding Democratic analyst Hilary Rosen’s comment that Ann Romney, stay-at-home mother of five, “had never worked a day in her life.” Rosen is a tv pundit who has no affiliation with the Obama campaign. This didn’t stop conservatives from accusing liberals of lacking family values. Somewhat ironically, just a couple of months ago, Mitt Romney boasted of implementing a work requirement for recipients of welfare in the state of Massachusetts. This included mothers with children as young as two. Romney said that he wanted to “give them the dignity of work.” This disconnect speaks to the way Mitt Romney and other conservatives assign different value to motherhood based on socioeconomic status.

Romney and fellow Republicans have pushed back saying that it is in fact President Obama who is waging the war, citing job loss statistics for women during the financial crisis-induced Great Recession. Moving past this rhetoric and revisionist economic history, let’s look to GOP policy decisions. Again, we go back to the states.

In Wisconsin, where Scott Walker faces recall, the Governor signed into a law a repeal of the 2009 Equal Pay Enforcement Act. Wisconsin women could already expect to earn only 78 percent of what their male counterparts do, but according to the Republican ethos, free markets and affirmative action cannot peacefully coexist. The American Association of University Women reports that the U.S. has on average a 23 percent gender pay gap.

Last October, Topeka, Kansas decriminalized domestic violence as a part of GOP-led austerity measures. Domestic violence remains a crime under state law, but further budget impasse has made it unclear who will prosecute these crimes. The advocacy group UniteWomen.org says there are “currently over 400 similar bills are being considered federally and within states including the current debate on the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (S. 1925) in the U.S. Senate.”

Conservatives seem to find government intervention useful when it comes to women’s health and reproductive rights, but believe that only the free market can solve gender income disparities. Meanwhile, Republicans are pushing through harsh budget cuts that disproportionately impact low-income mothers and working women. Is the GOP waging a ‘war on women’? Maybe not, but their policy positions certainly give one reason to pause.

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