Credit: Marc Nozell on Flick, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
(WOMENSENEWS)--Not long ago, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife Ann Romney refused to comment on whether women should have access to contraception in their employer insurance plans.
"You're asking me questions that are not about what this election is going to be about," she said. "This election is going to be about the economy and jobs."
Earth to Ann. Contraception is a huge economic issue for women.
The GOP's inability to understand that--or speak about that--hints of an attitude that some of its more outspoken supporters have directly admitted: that birth control for women promotes wanton lives filled with promiscuity. Or as Rush Limbaugh simply said about Sandra Fluke when the Georgetown law student spoke out on contraceptive access: "It makes her a slut."
It wasn't always like this in Republican circles. In the 1960s and 1970s, politicians from both the Democratic Party and a very different Republican Party heralded affordable contraception for women.
Their political collaboration on what became Title X funding was a public-private partnership between government and nonprofit organizations to provide subsidized birth control access for poor women.
The rationale was that if government subsidized family planning it would promote long-term economic opportunity for women who wanted to control the number of children they had but did not have the information or the financial resources to do so. In turn, the vicious cycle of poverty would be reduced and the need for government services would dwindle.
A recent report from the Guttmacher Institute pointed out that economists have concluded that oral contraceptives revolutionized the lives of women economically in the 20th century. Access to contraception, in turn, has raised the age at which women marry, which has led to a significant increase in women's participation in the labor force and given them greater financial independence.
Recession Heightens Family Planning
Today, in the face of economic uncertainty, couples are concerned about planning carefully before adding to their families.
A recent Pew study shows that nearly a third of U.S. couples between the ages of 18 and 34 are, for economic reasons, putting off marriage or postponing having a baby. In order to postpone having children until they feel economically stable, women and their families need contraception.
Without affordable contraceptive access, women's lives can take unplanned turns.
Ask my friend Robin, who grew up in a lower-income family, took gifted classes in school and dreamt of college. Even though she used contraceptives, an unexpected pregnancy prevented her from finishing college at an earlier age and moving on to a better life financially while many in her peer group did.
Ask my friend Maria, a woman who did finish college and got married, but now is divorced with a child, living in a small town. Maria can't afford another child, and without Medicaid would not even be able to afford appropriate contraception.
Even when a woman is able to secure contraceptives, they're not always the most effective--the most effective is many times the most expensive, emphasizing the need for affordable access for everyone based on need, not cost.
I grew up the daughter of immigrants, and even though my brother and I were planned, I watched my mom and dad struggle to balance the economic challenges that came their way as new Americans.
I know, as do many women, that even when a pregnancy is planned it radically changes our lives. Even though I'm married, a child right now would slow down my route to a level of economic security that I know I will need to raise a family.
To be sure, as Ann Romney said, women are worried about an economy in which being unemployed or underemployed is the norm. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times showed that even though women outpaced men in earnings growth over the last decade, they are lagging behind in getting new jobs. Since 2009, men have landed 80 percent of the 2.6 million net jobs created, including 61 percent in the last year.
So yes, the economy and jobs and wages are all important to women, but contraception is inextricably linked to those issues.
Even if a woman has a job, not having employer-provided contraceptive coverage without copays or deductibles can be a financial burden for many. And having an unplanned child is even more expensive and possibly job-threatening, especially given that most U.S. workplaces don't have a flexible parental leave policy or paid sick days.
Given her affliction with multiple sclerosis, Ann Romney has certainly had her share of health woes. And my heart goes out to her for that.
At the end of the day, however, she can afford to be flippant about contraception.
Unlike many American women, she was born into wealth and has a husband who provides for her economically. She has never had to worry how another child might affect her ability to pay the bills. But that's not the reality for many American women today.
And the GOP would do better with female voters if it understood this reality.
Atima Omara-Alwala is a political strategist who has staffed seven political campaigns and other causes with a focus on women's rights and political empowerment. She is national vice president of the Young Democrats of America, on the board of Planned Parenthood of Metro Washington Action Fund Board and the DC Abortion Fund.
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