Every evaluation of the Obama presidency starts with the same basic dilemma. Obama took office facing the worst crises since Franklin Roosevelt. He promptly enacted a stimulus packages that staved off a depression, made good on health care reform sidetracked for half a century, and won the appointment of eminent women to the Supreme Court and the Cabinet - all over the efforts of an obstructionist minority who would rather have the country fail than see this president succeed.
So why the dismay among progressives generally and feminists, in particular? The answer is straightforward. In the face of extremist opposition that gives disproportionate influence to a would-be American Taliban, the administration caves (bad) and extracts no price for allowing policies hostile to women to triumph (worse). The result puts women's interests on the defensive throughout the country (unforgiveable!).
The next fight on the agenda will be over the regulations implementing health care reform. Efforts are underway to insure access to contraception as part of preventive care. Eighty-nine percent of sexually active women use birth control, and an overwhelming majority of the public favors greater contraceptive support. Birth control pills can run as high as $75 per month, and with the recession, growing numbers of women report that they can't afford them. Yet, the Republican right is determined to fight these measures, confident that if it says "sex," the administration will cut and run.
The pattern started with the stimulus package. The original proposal would have made it easier for the states to provide contraception to women while they were in the hospital giving birth at government expense. The Republican minority yelled "family planning" and the administration yanked the proposal before anyone realized what it was about. To understand the implications, start with the under-reported fact that 40% of all births in the United States are paid for by Medicaid. That means that 40% of all births are to women at or near the poverty line. Add the fact that in the period before the financial crisis, unintended pregnancies fell 20% for middle class women - who had access to the more effective contraceptives available with medical insurance -- while rising rising 29% for the group who would have benefited from the stimulus provision.
Now ask, why do Republicans oppose contraception for poor women who are having children at taxpayer expense? Because they benefit politically. When Republicans say "family planning," many hear "abortion," even though this proposal's only impact on abortions would be to reduce them. Opposition to family planning also caters to rabid social conservatives who view contraception as government subsidization of "those sluts" (in the words of one Colorado politician). When the administration pulled the proposal without a fight, the opposition kept its coded messages veiled from the centrists who might disagree - and paid no political price for advancing the agenda of those who would bring back the scarlet letter, even if they oppose the veil.
Imagine what would happen if the Obama administration fought back long enough to make the opposition explain exactly why they are so opposed. When congressional Democrats forced repeated votes on unemployment insurance, we got to hear how such benefits are less important than tax cuts for the wealthy, and how in the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, they discourage the unemployed from taking jobs. Imagine asking the same representatives to explain why they opposed reducing the paperwork so that Idaho can get the same contraceptive benefits Mississippi already has (the real impact of the stimulus proposal). Think of the news clips that might result if Senator Ensign (R. Nev. and conservative Christian caught funneling payments to his paramour's family) were asked whether he agreed that poor women should be forced to have more babies so that they will have less sex. Consider the fun news cameramen might have finding a Congressman who cannot fathom that married women might use birth control and have trouble affording it.
Women are most in need of a champion who embraces real "sex education" and demonstrates just how intolerant the opposition to women's reproductive needs has become. True bipartisanship will become possible only if the administration spotlights and discredits the extremism of its opponents.
June Carbone is a professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-author with Naomi Cahn of Red Families v. Blue Families.
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