04/06/2012 03:08 pm ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

It's Not Abortion Politics, It's Breadwinning Politics

Apparently some in the Republican leadership think that women have tiny little insect brains (see, RNC leader Reince Priebus and caterpillar reference), but I think they are the ones who are thinking in tiny ways.

What's the big deal about blocking access to birth control, the GOP leadership might think. Polls well with the base doesn't affect everyone. Rick Santorum thinks birth control causes unnatural things to happen. Some of his colleagues think an all-out attack on women's rights in the reproductive realm is a narrow issue, one that only moves second wave feminists, promiscuous young women, and bleeding heart liberals. What they don't seem to realize is that women earn the family dollar these days, and women know that birth control is directly tied to wage-earning. I have had two babies, and each time I have, I have had to lessen my workload and wage earning for at least a quarter. Imagine if I had five babies: That is over a year of my life in which I'm earning less, with more mouths to feed.

I am not sure the Obama campaign understands fully that many women care more about their access to wages than their access to abortions, but Obama does understand the two issues are inextricably linked. And it's showing in his polling with all women.

In my last post, I discussed how women voters have soured to Republicans in recent months, almost certainly due to politicians' slate of attacks on women's health and reproductive rights. But I was surprised to find that women hadn't necessarily transferred their support to President Obama. That is, until now.

Gallup released a report earlier this week that shows the gender gap is widening between Mitt Romney (who I think we can assume will be the Republican nominee) and Barack Obama in key swing states. According to Gallup, if the election were held today, Obama would beat Romney 51 percent to 42 percent. Among women? Obama would receive 54 percent of the vote to Romney's 36 percent.

This isn't surprising. Nearly two-thirds of women report they have been watching the birth control debate "very or somewhat closely" and the attacks on women's health haven't been coming from the left. Though the birth control debate has quieted as of late, women are proving to be the swing group that will decide the 2012 presidential election. Just as "security moms" helped keep former President Bush in office in 2004, women are watching this election closely.

One Romney pollster, Neil Newhouse, believes the gender gap will narrow during the general election when debate will likely focus more narrowly on economic issues. But Newhouse's prediction that women will move toward Romney's camp because they care more about the economy than about reproductive rights shows just how out of touch the campaign is. The GOP is not only supporting legislation that harms women and their families, they refuse to even acknowledge the fact that these policies are directed at women. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told Bloomberg that the War on Women is as real as a "war on caterpillars."

The current debate around birth control was launched by the Obama Administration's proposal to require employers to offer insurance plans that cover birth control, with churches being exempt under a conscience clause. When many bristled at this, saying it would be in violation of the first amendment, the Obama Administration announced it would require insurance companies to cover the cost of birth control for those employees whose employers would not offer plans that did not offer coverage. Yes, this is a debate about women's reproductive health, and a small part of that is about sex, conceiving and abortion. But more specifically, this is a debate about women's access to health care and the huge impact health care has on a family's well being.

Reproductive rights aren't just women's issues; they're economic issues, everyday, normal issues. It's dramatic to imagine the woman who needs an abortion and the hardship she goes through: She is unable to take time off from her job, drive or fly herself to a clinic, stay in a hotel, and pay for her procedure.

But even if she does not support abortion rights, every single American woman knows in her heart than at some point in her life, she will need to earn money. When she has children, she will probably be responsible for a large part of her family's earnings, as two-thirds of women are. And as the song goes, if she doesn't have her health, she's got nothing.

A belief that women are more concerned about economic issues than health issues might be right, but you really cannot separate the two. A few weeks ago on the Diane Rehm Show, Phyllis Schlafly repeated over and over again that the current debate about birth control isn't about access -- all women have access. If Schlafly meant physical access she is probably correct. Birth control pills may be sitting behind the counter of nearly every pharmacy in America, but if a woman can't afford it, it might as well be illegal. Newhouse is right: Women are concerned about economic issues. But if we're going to debate economic issues in this country, let's be sure to include the ones that affect more than half of our population.

Kaitlyn Dowling (@kaitlyndowling) contributed to this piece.