Tomorrow all eyes will be on women -- some say the deciding demographic of this year's election -- as we cast our ballots for president, members of Congress and major ballot initiatives in key states. And although we women have been casting ballots for more than ninety years now, we are getting special attention this year as all candidates understand that the gender gap could well be decisive. The candidates are right -- our votes in 2012 will likely have a major impact. So here's a look at what's on many of our minds as we make our Election Day decisions: health care, pay equity, reproductive rights, and the social safety net programs that families and seniors depend on, among other issues.
The landmark achievement for women's health in the last several years is surely the Affordable Care Act. For the first time in legislative history, reproductive health care and access to contraceptives are treated by the federal government as an integral part of women's health care. Benefits under the new law include contraceptive services without co-pays, annual well-woman visits, preventive screenings for breast and cervical cancer, and screening and counseling for interpersonal and domestic violence. But women know that these gains are by no means secure. In the last two years, the House of Representatives voted several times to repeal the new health care law.
Not only is reproductive health care under the Affordable Care Act at stake, but new legal attacks on Roe v. Wade will likely make their way to the Supreme Court in the next session. The survival of Roe is imperative if women are to make our own moral and religious decisions regarding pregnancy in consultation with our doctors and whomever else we choose.
The federal courts' views on laws regarding employment discrimination, affirmative action, economic regulation, and religious liberty will likewise have a huge impact on women's lives. While women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar paid to a man doing similar work, employment protections for women have already been curtailed by the current Supreme Court. In 2009 Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, reversing the court's decision three years earlier that limited a woman's right to sue her employer. But now the companion bill -- the Paycheck Fairness Act -- is stalled in the current Congress.
And at the state level, even the right to vote won nine decades ago is under attack, as many states enact laws that restrict early voting, end same-day registration, and impose onerous photo ID requirements that will make it impossible for millions to vote, including a disproportionate number of older women. Those laws may also be tested in the Supreme Court.
Because of the persistently lower wages earned by women, women and children are particularly at risk when food programs are slashed. That is why, especially in light of the economic downturn, maintaining the social safety net is a key priority for women. Yet draconian cuts in the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) are now on the table in Congress.
The future of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Health Care Act is on women's minds, too. Medicaid now not only provides health care to 39 million people in low-income families, but it also ensures long-term care coverage for over 13 million elderly and persons with disabilities, including over 6 million Medicare beneficiaries -- a large majority of them women. Many seniors need Medicaid to provide long-term care because they have exhausted their middle class savings. Without Medicaid, their adult children would struggle to pay for a nursing home while also trying to save money for their own children's college education.
And it is not just Medicaid. Social Security is the bedrock of older women's financial security - virtually the only source of income for 3 in 10 women 65 and older -- and a critical source of disability and life insurance protection throughout their lives. There's no reason to think these statistics will change for the next generation, and with periods of high unemployment and the disappearance of traditional pension plans, the economic crisis will likely make the situation worse. Bills introduced in Congress this year would gut the current Social Security program and disproportionately impact women's economic security.
Medicare costs are rising due to inflation in the price of health care, but many in Congress would ignore the underlying reasons for rising costs and suggest that we shove the problem under the pillow of privatization. Instead of upholding the promise to pay for health care for those 65 and over, who are more likely to be women, recipients would be handed a voucher for a fixed amount and told to find insurance on their own. When the voucher runs out, so will their health care.
For those candidates looking to court women voters, focusing on the survival of programs that keep food on the table, provide medical care, ensure a fair and equitable workplace, and give women the deciding voice in their own reproductive health care choices is a good place to start. And to be heard by those candidates, we women must speak up, make our votes count, and ensure that whoever governs, from state capitals to Capitol Hill and the White House, is held accountable to us.