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Women’s health issues dominate campaign politics

Published: Friday, April 13, 2012

Updated: Friday, April 13, 2012 02:04

tufts voices

Kyra Sturgill for The Tufts Daily

Tufts Voices for Choice, commonly known as VOX, promotes women’s reproductive rights on campus and is affiliated with Planned Parenthood.


Election season is approaching, and, as usual, sharp rhetoric is flying between the Democrats and Republicans. This year, however, women’s health issues — such as contraception and abortion — dominate much of the debate. These issues center on a growing controversy that some call a “war on women,” and women’s reactions to it have the potential to shape the outcome of the 2012 elections.

This past year has seen a series of contentious and inflammatory events surrounding women’s health, such as the Komen Fund/Planned Parenthood controversy, the sharp backlash to Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke and the debate over the implications of the Affordable Care Act. As media coverage ramps up and partisan divides escalate, many women, including Director of the Women’s Center Steph Gauchel, see these incidents as a fundamental challenge to the rights of women.

“While these issues and attacks are not new, there has recently been an incredible increase in politicians’ and large portions of the media’s aggressive and relentless attack on women’s rights to control and make decisions about their health, privacy and their own bodies,” she told the Daily in an email.

In February, Fluke testified before the House Democrats in support of national insurance coverage for contraceptives. She spoke out against Georgetown’s lack of birth control coverage, arguing that “contraception is basic health care.” In response, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute,” igniting a furious public reaction and earning Fluke a phone call from President Barack Obama.

Sophomore Aliza Gordon believes this issue is indicative of systemic health-related inequalities for American women. Gordon is president of Tufts Voices for Choice (VOX), a student organization that promotes reproductive rights and is affiliated with Planned Parenthood.

“People that need basic medical care, want their birth control covered, are being called ‘sluts’ on a national level and are being told that they’re asking people to pay for their sex,” Gordon said. “How can you be saying that we’re in a post-feminist world when stuff like this is continually happening? It seems like we’re backtracking in terms of women’s health, which is really in terms of equality.”

The increasing focus on women’s health can also be traced back to Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul, which became law in March 2010 after nearly a year of intensely partisan debate.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act included a mandate that employers must cover contraceptives in their insurance, with the exception of churches and places of worship. But the mandate did not specify exemptions for religious institutions that are morally opposed to contraception, sparking outrage from Catholic institutions and from Republican presidential candidates, who said the mandate was an affront to religious liberty.

In response, Republican senators proposed the Blunt Amendment, which was co-sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown (LA ’81). This sweeping amendment would have allowed any employer to exempt themselves on moral objections from any provision of the healthcare law. It was defeated in the Senate, and an accommodation was implemented to allow religious institutions to deflect contraception coverage to the insurance companies rather than provide it themselves.

Sinclair Stafford, president of Tufts Republicans, sees the healthcare law and its contraception provision as the government trampling religious and moral convictions.

“The fact that it violates religious liberty, especially Christians’ religious liberty, is a big deal for the GOP. It should be a big deal for everyone,” she said. “[Many people] don’t understand that to Catholics, this is a big deal, and even just to be an accessory to providing birth control is essentially the equivalent to doing a grave sin.”

Many women, however, have strong negative reactions to the Republican Party’s stance on these issues, particularly former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum’s positions to restrict abortion rights and contraceptive use.

“There’s a blunt assertion by dominant elements of the Republican party that women’s reproductive rights should be regulated. It’s an assault on the reproductive rights of women,” Associate Professor of Political Science Richard Eichenberg, who concentrates on gender politics, said.

“It’s upsetting, it’s insulting to me, the things they’ve said about contraceptives,” freshman Zobella Vinik said. “It’s really disappointing to me that I don’t feel like there is a Republican candidate that can say, ‘I’m standing for women, I want women to have equal pay, I want women to pay the same for health insurance as men, I want women to feel safe and feel like they can get the services they need.’”

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