When it comes to my status as a vaginal American, I haven't been so happy about the state of affairs for years. Transvaginal ultrasounds mandated in Virginia? Bring it! Aspirin as birth control! Tell me more. A Congressional panel of men deciding how (if?) women should control their fertility?
Things have threatened to become so comically repressive, it's woken us up out of our stupor. We're mad as hell. And the word "vaginal" has been on the front page of the New York Times more times than in recent history.
Things are changing fast: as Nancy Pelosi just tweeted, "Today's hearing on women's health looks a little different than GOP's hearing last week." Women who could not testify a week ago are now up on stage.
In Virginia, Governor Bob McDonnell shifted his position on a bill requiring women to have a vaginal ultrasound before having an abortion. It took three days, 33,000 Virginian signatures protesting the bill, and a very powerful Daily Show segment.
Dr. Jane Mansbridge, Adams professor at the Harvard Kennedy School put two great quotes in my head. "Fortuna," said Machiavelli, "is the arbiter of one-half of our actions." And Shakespeare said, "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune."
In the case of reasserting women's rights to healthcare, the flood has been a long time coming.
Right now, it is clear we have a policy window to reset Americans' idea about women's health and reproductive rights. According to Dr. Mansbridge, a policy window is an opportunity created by a conjuncture of events that make a new policy possible. The window can be a time in which you promote a particular policy, it can be the moment when you can help advance the clarification that a crisis brings about, or it can be an "unsettling of past settlements."
In the case of the issue of reproductive rights, our answer could be less of a single policy solution than a reassertion in the minds of many Americans that the radical right wing has gone a step too far, and it's time to right the ship. It's a "re-normalization" of what 30 years ago were considered basic rights not even up for debate.
The flood began with the massive groundswell against Susan G. Komen's politically motivated decision to defund mammograms and breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood clinics. Planned Parenthood gained new donors outside their base, and reasserted their rightful perception as a healthcare provider, not an abortion provider. This issue crossed over into the mainstream and even a Republican politician, Michael Bloomberg, gave $250,000 to Planned Parenthood. Women said loud and clear, don't mess with our health in the name of abortion politics.
The Obama administration took advantage of the policy window created by the reassertion of millions of Americans to preserve breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood to push forward mandatory contraception coverage, thus raising the ire of the Catholic Bishops lobby.
Except: 99 percent of all American women use contraception at some point in their lives. Even Catholic women, whom the Bishops purport to represent, use contraception at nearly the same rate as the broad public, even though many of those women refer to themselves as pro-life. According to the Guttmacher Institute, "Among all women who have had sex, 99 percent have used a contraceptive method other than natural family planning. This figure is virtually the same among Catholic women (98 percent)." The backlash against the Bishops raises thoughts people haven't even thought about for a while.
According to Dr. Mansbridge, many of us, even as individuals, have contradictory opinions about birth control. We may not believe abortion is a good alternative, but we believe contraception is a no-brainer.
We all live with contradictions in our heads and that's good, but at some points you need to make decisions. Even the pro-choice among us may have not felt moved to act on behalf of women's health, or experienced uncomfortable ambivalence around issues like third trimester abortion. Indeed, many people are ambivalent about abortion. But they are less conflicted about contraception. They believe in it. They are most definitely NOT ambivalent about women's access to life-saving breast cancer screenings.
So when they hear a spokesperson for a presidential candidate joke about contraception on MSNBC, as did Foster Friess, the man behind a Super PAC for Rick Santorum, they jerk their heads and say, "wait a minute!"
As MomsRising.org said, "Access to birth control is no joking matter."
The question is, what now? Will we see the reassertion in Americans' basic support of women's health in the 2012 elections? In a changing culture discussion about these issues? In poll numbers? The toughest solution will be in changing the course of many state legislatures working so hard to strip the most fundamental tenets of women's health coverage from the laws.
This window is real, but it's short. How are we going to keep it open, for good?
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