It seems a lifetime ago that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that a state law prohibiting the use of contraceptives violated the right to marital privacy. Eight years later, the constitutional principles underlying that decision were pivotal to the court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, which recognized that the right to have an abortion was a protected, private decision, with some exceptions.
Roe v. Wade and access to safe contraception have helped make possible the hard-won gains that women have achieved during the past 40 years in education, employment, and participation in public life. But the status of American women as full and equal citizens is being challenged just about every day by outspoken priests, pundits, and politicians who are questioning long-established rights to family planning and other women's health programs. This assault has accelerated in the wake of the Republican tsunami that was the 2010 election. Rights first established in 1965 in Griswold, and strengthened in intervening years, empowered women. However, women's rights to abortion, health care, dignity, and privacy are on the endangered list.
Recently, the battle moved to the U.S. Senate, where the "Respect for Rights of Conscience Act," proposed by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) as an amendment to a transportation bill, sought to allow any employer to opt out of abortion and contraceptive coverage -- and any other health treatment, including prenatal care, childhood vaccinations, cancer screenings, and mammograms -- based solely on the undefined determination of the employer's religious and moral beliefs. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) rightfully denounced the bill as "an extreme, ideological amendment."
Fortunately, the Blunt Amendment was narrowly defeated, 51-48. Olympia Snowe of Maine was the only Republican to vote "nay." The bill has been cited as one of Snowe's principal reasons for her recent surprising decision to retire from the Senate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) confessed to the Anchorage Daily News, "I have never had a vote I've taken where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me." She unhesitatingly said "no" when asked if she would vote the same way again.
Apparently the qualms expressed by Murkowski and Snowe are not shared by the senior senator from Pennsylvania, Democrat Bob Casey Jr., who joined only two other Democratic senators, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, in voting for the Blunt amendment. Casey insisted that the alternative position supported by other Democrats did not go far enough to protect the constitutional liberties of religious institutions and employers -- despite recent concessions by the Obama administration. Casey's vote was reminiscent of many of his earlier positions, most notably his vote against federal funding of stem-cell research in 2007 (supported by 63 senators, including 17 Republicans). Nelson was the only other Democrat who voted with Casey then. That bill, vetoed by President George W. Bush, became law when President Obama enacted it via an executive order.
Women should not need a permission slip from the government or employers to address their reproductive health needs, and it is becoming increasingly clear that the women of Pennsylvania cannot trust Casey to protect their health and defend their rights. The senator had an opportunity to stand by the dignity and well-being of women on the Blunt amendment, but chose instead to stand with Republicans and the likes of Rush Limbaugh. Casey's vote made it clear that he supports the religious and moral beliefs of employers above comparable rights and beliefs of women. No explanation can mitigate this fundamental fact. Ironically, ensuring women's access to contraception would reduce the number of abortions, something the anti-abortion Casey should support.
It is time to hold Casey accountable. During his 2006 Senate campaign, Casey gave verbal assurances to women's rights organizations that his abortion position would not translate into opposition to women's health measures or support for the Catholic Church's position on contraception. And Democratic leaders supporting Casey said that women's rights would not be compromised by Casey's votes for Supreme Court nominees. That, too, proved false.
For Casey, a commitment to women's health and rights is nothing but political rhetoric, as his broken promises prove. It is time for Pennsylvanians to ask whether we can, in good conscience, vote for him in November.
E-mail Kate Michelman, who resides in both Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., at KMichelman@gmail.com.
This piece was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.