International Women’s Day: Attacks Increase on Women’s Health Rights in the United States

Today is International Women’s Day, a symbolic day to “join women around the globe in solidarity for human rights, dignity and equality.” Yet these are challenging times for women in the United States. Attacks on women’s human rights have increased, reproductive rights are being rolled back across the country, and misogynist rhetoric is at a fever pitch. 

As the president of the National Organization of Women, Terry O’Neill, writes, attacks on women’s rights have “escalated into an outright War on Women. Now, the Republican presidential primaries are offering a disturbing glimpse into the supposed conservative vision for this country. In this right-wing utopia, women will no longer be able to exercise the right to control their bodies, plan their families or safeguard their own health. The church and the state will tell women what is best for them, and religious entities' ‘liberty’ will consistently trump individual women's right to live and work free from discrimination and in accordance with their own religious and moral beliefs.”

Today is also the day that the governor of Virginia signs into law a bill that forces a woman to undergo and pay for an ultrasound before having an abortion, making Virginia the eighth U.S. state with such a requirement. After weeks of protest, the law’s provision requiring a vaginal ultrasound was struck, yet in other states this forced procedure – essentially state-sponsored rape – is already in place. Three weeks ago, a new Texas law took effect that requires vaginal ultrasounds. The NOW president explains: “in the vast majority of abortions, which occur far too early in pregnancy for an external (‘jelly on the belly’) ultrasound to produce an image, the ultrasound must be transvaginal – i.e., a long wand-like ultrasound probe must be inserted deep into the woman's vagina. This is, quite simply, state-sponsored rape.”

New York Times columnist Kristof writes that the “law is part of a war over women’s health being fought around the country — and in much of the country, women are losing. State by state, legislatures are creating new obstacles to abortions and are treating women in ways that are patronizing and humiliating. […] The new Texas law is the most extreme to take effect so far, but similar laws have been passed in North Carolina and Oklahoma and are on hold pending legal battles.  Alabama, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Mississippi are also considering Texas-style legislation bordering on state-sanctioned rape. And what else do you call it when states mandate invasive probes in women’s bodies?”

The NOW president stresses that “any mandatory ultrasound law — vaginal or abdominal — is a violation of a woman's right to bodily integrity and an ugly intrusion on her right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.”

In 2011, lawmakers in 24 states adopted a record number of 92 new restrictions to abortion services, “a striking increase from last year, when 26% of new provisions restricted abortion,” reports the Guttmacher Institute.

Arguably, women’s health groups have been unprepared for this War on Women, as most were confident that the new Affordable Care Act with its market-based health care reforms would protect women’s access to health care, even though it contained new restrictions to insurance coverage for reproductive services (read NESRI's 2010 assessment of the ACA’s impact on women’s health rights here).  In fact, it was a federal administrative rule implementing the ACA’s employer-sponsored insurance coverage provisions that kicked of the latest battle between the religious right and women’s health advocates. Yet if health care reform had not abandoned the widespread demand for a universal, publicly financed health care system, it could have eliminated the gate-keeping role of employers and insurance companies and instead provided free access to reproductive services as part of a single payer system. (Read a summary of the controversy over contraception coverage by employer-sponsored private insurance plans here.) 

The abusive rhetoric against women fighting for their health rights shows how the contraception controversy has escalated the attack on women’s rights. Sandra Fluke, advocating for her Jesuit university’s private insurance plan to cover birth control, was publicly vilified in a way that has “revealed the deep-rooted hostility toward women that lies at the heart of the unprecedented wave of assaults on reproductive rights across the United States,” said Nancy Northup of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “The deeply offensive and misogynistic commentary of recent days poisons public discourse and threatens to undermine many decades of progress in securing and protecting women’s fundamental rights to health, autonomy, dignity, and equal treatment under the law.”

The very real consequences for women, especially low-income and poor women and those from rural areas, are taking hold in Texas, where 284,000 women have lost their reproductive health services due to drastic cuts in the state’s family planning budget, which are estimated to “lead to 20,500 additional births and cost Medicaid about $230 million.” By next Wednesday, the number of women without basic health services, including cancer screenings, is estimated to rise to 400,000, as the Texas Medicaid Women’s Health Program will lose its funding. In Texas poor women cannot get Medicaid unless they are pregnant, so the federal government partners with Texas to provide at least basic women’s health services. But as the New York Times explains, “Gov. Rick Perry and Republican lawmakers have said they would forgo the $35 million in federal money that finances the women’s health program in order to keep Planned Parenthood from getting any of it. … Several state legislatures recently voted to stop some Planned Parenthood financing: Title X money in Kansas and North Carolina, Medicaid in Indiana, other family planning and breast cancer screening funds in Wisconsin.”

At national level, attempts are underway to eliminate the federal family planning program, Title X, which funds community-based clinics that provide a broad range of preventive health services to 5 million women and men. “All four Republican presidential candidates support eliminating Title X, which was created in 1970 with Republican support from President Nixon and the elder George Bush, then a congressman. The battle intensified in February when the House of Representatives voted to eliminate Title X and eliminate federal financing for Planned Parenthood. The Senate defeated the bill, but the issue remains alive.”

This will be just one of many struggles that lie ahead for women in the United States, taking inspiration from the history of struggles commemorated on this International Women’s Day.


Update: A Doonesbury comic strip on the new abortion restrictions has made headlines and was censured by some newspapers. Download the strip below.