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The Politics of Women's Health Care

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After months of Republican presidential candidates embarrassing themselves and the party of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt with religious zealotry dominating the primary season, the relentless assault on a woman's health care choices can be expected to continue as it distracts American voters from an authentic debate on other important issues that dominate American life today.

More than just a divinely-inspired reverence for life, the coordinated war on women has whipped the ideologically-pure Republican base to a fine froth that has added a gender gap to the national campaign and alienated registered Independent female voters, 48 percent of whom are now siding with the Democrats.

At the center of the anti-choice movement is a testosterone-driven opposition, the majority of whom will never find themselves pregnant yet believe they are imbued with the right to impose their religious beliefs on a woman's most intimate life decision and on a woman who does not share their views.

Social conservatives have conveniently lost sight of the fact that Roe v. Wade was based on the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment 'due process' clause guaranteeing each individual a right to privacy, free from unwarranted government intrusion and that Constitutional protection for the use of contraceptives was affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1965. While a direct attack on the Fourteenth Amendment is fraught with unintended consequences, anti-choice activists have shrewdly chosen to broaden their efforts against health needs for women in open disdain.

It does seem incredulous that Republican candidates, full of righteous pontifications have handed the largest, most important voting bloc to the Democrats as it escalates its on-going war on women. The Republican party's attack not only jeopardizes the national Republican party's credibility but is in evidence in state legislatures across the country that have been on the march to deny women their Constitutionally-protected rights.

Most recently, Sen. Roy Blunt's (R-MO) harsh amendment to allow an employer to deny reproductive health services to women based on moral or religious principles failed on a too-close-for-comfort 51-48 vote with only one Republican, retiring Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME) voting with the Democrats and three Democrats including Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) voting with the Republicans.

Yet, in Massachusetts, Sen. Scott Brown's (R-MA) vote in support of the Blunt amendment was a sign of the church's political power and indicative of recent polls showing him with an eight point lead over Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, a clear supporter of women's health issues.

Blunt's amendment could have been a heaven sent opportunity for Mitt Romney, who appears as stiff as Al Gore in 2000, to begin to pivot as a 'moderate' Republican -- a dying breed to be sure. Romney's first reaction was one that you might expect from a former Governor of liberal Massachusetts when he said that "... the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a women, husband and wife, I'm not going there," and then later, "Contraception is working just fine, let's just leave it alone." Within hours, however, the timid Romney backtracked in support of Blunt proving that he will do whatever it takes to be elected.

Enter former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum surrounded by "Catholic Homeschoolers for Santorum" signs who attacked Romney for lacking conservative instincts on social issues like contraception which Santorum referred to as a "'license' to do things 'in the sexual realm.'"

In addition to opposing abortion with no exceptions even in the case of rape or incest, Santorum has given every reason to believe that his policies on women's health issues are so narrow and regressive as to take the country back to the 19th Century. Even as Santorum and his wife, a former nurse, experienced the tragedy of a daughter born with Trisomy 18, a chromosomal abnormality with a low rate of survival, the couple made the painful decision to refuse a doctor's recommendation to abort. Yet he remains opposed to prenatal testing for a damaged fetus.

Given Newt Gingrich's well-known history with women, his pledge to support anti-choice appointments and the prosecution of doctors who provide abortions is in sync with his otherwise callow, crude candidacy. Ron Paul, who has yet to win a primary, once supported, as a true libertarian, a woman's right to choose but is now in the 'life begins at conception' column.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama has embraced the women's health issue as the Democratic party's commitment has surpassed the Republicans but, over the years, has been a mixed bag when the chips are down.

Even as Congressional Democrats protected Planned Parenthood from a Republican assault in 2011, Democrats have historically provided the margin to reauthorize the Hyde Amendment each year. Adopted in 1976, the once controversial amendment which bans abortions for Medicaid recipients is not a permanent law but a 'rider' which requires annual reauthorization. Yet, even when Democrats have controlled both houses of Congress. The amendment makes its way silently through the legislative labyrinth to passage without benefit of a public hearing, witnesses or medical testimony.

During early debate on the Affordable Care Act of 2009, the president threatened to veto the Act if it did not include abortion funding and yet ultimately accepted the status quo of no Federal funds for abortion. In a separate action, Democrats joined Republicans in banning D.C.-funded abortions for poor women.

As critically important as women's health concerns are to many American women who struggle with the country's meager health care coverage, both political parties need to be held accountable as beltway Republicans have initiated a calculated assault on women in the name of religious freedom and Democrats who talk a good race as they woo female votes have, too often, failed to step up when the party's most reliable constituency are up against the wall.

With legal abortions widely available throughout Europe including predominately Catholic Spain, Germany, France and Italy, it is curious that abortion policy in the U.S. remains stuck in the 1800s as a political hot-button issue -- even after Roe v. Wade presumably settled the issue.

Powerful adversaries like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops who would benefit from a better understanding of the First Amendment's separation of church and state, have promised to overturn the new contraceptive coverage rules, and will be joined by the extreme right wing to form a potent coalition. No matter which way the November election goes, the fight to protect women's health choices is far from over.