As the president of NOW, I hear from a lot of women (and men). Many of them are outraged right now, and they're asking the same question: Can this be real -- is the White House actually caving in to the radical right on birth control?
At this moment, the answer appears to be Yes.
Earlier this month, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pulled rank on the FDA, overruling the agency's carefully considered decision to eliminate the discriminatory age restriction on a safe and effective form of emergency contraception. Despite the unprecedented nature of this move, President Obama backed up the secretary, adding: "As the father of two daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine."
Women are all too familiar with the paternalistic call for "common sense" when it comes to female bodies. We're sick and tired of the implication that women aren't capable of exercising common sense over our reproductive lives. And let's be honest: Is a government agency really best suited to define common sense for, say, a 12-year-old who's just been raped by a family member?
The thought of a tween girl having unprotected sex and then purchasing and consuming a medication to prevent pregnancy makes many people uncomfortable. No matter how well-meaning their concern might be, it is absolutely beside the point. If that young woman doesn't want to become pregnant, that's her business. Personal opinions about birth control and societal preconceptions about young women's sexuality have no part in this private medical decision.
Unfortunately, conservative forces, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have no respect for women's autonomy. Their fingerprints are all over yet another piece of HHS business -- in this case, regulations governing preventive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Currently up for approval is a so-called conscience clause allowing religious institutions to deny birth control coverage to their employees (and by extension their families) -- as if an institution could have a conscience!
Still not satisfied, the bishops are angling for an even more expansive clause that would allow a much looser category of religious establishments to deny birth control coverage, potentially affecting three million or more women. Thus, progress turns into a major fail: The Obama administration attempts to do something worthwhile through health care reform, namely ensuring that women have access to contraception without co-pays or deductibles, and then the bishops come along and demand that it be taken away.
Will the president give them what they want, or will he stand up for women?
The women I'm talking to aren't expressing much confidence in the outcome, and they want to know if there's anything they can do. How can we stiffen the resolve of women's rights champions in the White House and on Capitol Hill? For decades, those in power have treated reproductive justice as a convenient bargaining chip -- often the first casualty of hardnosed negotiations. The current administration is no exception. How do we change this situation?
First, we make clear that women deserve nothing less than full reproductive freedom. Any compromise is unacceptable. It's wrong to barter over the rights, the health, the very lives of women and girls. We must condemn every inch the administration gives to the radical right, because accommodation only emboldens our opponents to reach further. There simply is no appeasing anti-choice leaders. The bishops will not be happy until women's reproduction is under strict control by an unholy alliance of the church and state.
Next, we send much-needed reinforcements to our allies in Congress. Many promising candidates are running in 2012, and they need our full support.
In Florida, former West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel is running against tea party favorite Rep. Allen West, who voted to convert Medicare to a private voucher system and has railed against feminists for supposedly "neutering" U.S. men. Nevada's Dina Titus and New Hampshire's Ann McLane Kuster would also be welcome additions to the House.
Representatives Tammy Baldwin and Shelley Berkley are looking to make the leap from House to Senate in Wisconsin and Nevada, respectively, while Rep. Mazie Hirono is campaigning to become Hawaii's first woman senator and the first Asian-American woman senator. Elizabeth Warren, who stood up to withering attacks by Wall Street, has an excellent chance of taking Scott Brown's Senate seat.
And did you know that Oregon has had no women in its congressional delegation in recent years? Fortunately, Suzanne Bonamici is running in the Jan. 31 special election to fill Oregon's open seat from the 2nd district.
The more passionate proponents of equality we can send to Washington, D.C., the more pressure we can put on the Obama administration to do the right thing.
By the end of 2012, I would love to report back that it turns out our president and his cabinet are strong supporters in the fight for women's rights. They just needed that extra push from us.
Follow Terry O'Neill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Terryoneill