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Battles Loom on Women's Rights, Health, Budget

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Spring brings an overflow of political battles that affect women. Statehouse bills attack choice, Medicare and Medicaid could be picked apart in agency budget hearings and federal spending to curb domestic violence faces unusual opposition.

Subhead: 
Spring brings an overflow of political battles that affect women. Statehouse bills attack choice, Medicare and Medicaid could be picked apart in agency budget hearings and federal spending to curb domestic violence faces unusual opposition.




(WOMENSENEWS)-- The GOP's late-winter attack on contraception coverage ran aground in the Senate, but women still have plenty at stake this spring in Congress and in states across the country.

Next week opponents of health reform will argue against its constitutionality before the Supreme Court, putting at risk a law that the Department of Health and Human Services says already has expanded health insurance to more than a million young adult women and will reach 13 million more by 2016.

Two weeks ago, meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee began a series of hearings to examine President Barack Obama's budget requests for federal agencies.

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Over the next month, heads of agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services will appear before appropriations subcommittees to discuss how the 2013 budget will affect their agency's funding for implementation of Medicare, Medicaid and other programs important to women.

House Republicans also introduced a 2013 budget Tuesday that would reshape Medicare into a system of private insurance plans, shrink programs for the poor and turn them over to state governments, The New York Times reported March 21.

Emily Martin, vice president of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, predicted that Congressional battles over women's rights will emerge this spring during Republican attempts to derail Obama's $3.8 trillion budget proposal.

"Women have trailed behind men in the economic recovery, so it is important that women don't get left behind when funds for job creation are approved," Martin said. "Heavy losses in the public sector, such as education, have been the major cause of the slow recovery for women, so non-traditional jobs will become increasingly important."

The National Women's Law Center, a nonprofit law firm that uses the courts to challenge gender bias and educates the public about women's rights, analyzed job gains in February and found that women gained 86,000 jobs, or 38 percent of the nearly 2.2 million net jobs added since the start of the recession in June 2009.

"Not much legislation gets passed in a presidential election year because the parties concentrate on their differences in order to attract voters," Martin said in a phone interview. "But appropriations for everything from job creation to child care to funding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act will have a profound impact on women and their families, so women must make sure that important programs aren't eliminated or reduced."

The National Women's Law Center analyzed the proposed Obama budget and found that it generally protected funding for programs important to women and families. However, there were some worrisome provisions, such as the elimination of apprenticing and grant programs to help women train for male-dominated occupations.

Higher-Paying Jobs a Priority

Donna Addkison, president and CEO of Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW), a Washington-based organization that works to improve the economic security for women and families, said that creating higher-paying jobs must be a priority.

"Less than 13 percent of the jobs that the Labor Department projects will be created by 2018 will pay wages that will not only allow workers to meet their basic expenses, but put their children through college and save for retirement," Addkison said in a phone interview. "More than 60 percent of single women now live in economic insecurity because of low wages."

Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act – which has been the centerpiece of the nation's efforts to combat domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking since 1994 – is another area of fierce partisan debate.

"Although previous reauthorizations passed unanimously in 2000 and 2005, the act faces an uphill fight this spring," said Lisa Maatz, director of public policy and government relations at the Washington-based American Association of University Women, a nonprofit organization founded in 1881. "Despite strong support by law enforcement officials and groups that work with survivors, not one Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the bill last month because they objected to provisions that protected gay, lesbian and transgender individuals and undocumented workers."

Battle for Choice Continues in States

The battle for choice, meanwhile, continues in the states.

"Women didn't turn out at the polls in the November 2010 mid-term elections, so ultra-right legislators were elected who will try to roll back 30 years of legislation protecting women's reproductive health and economic security," said Terry O'Neill, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women, the country's largest women's rights organization, in a phone interview.

In 2011, 135 abortion restrictions were enacted in 36 states, an increase from 89 in 2010 and 77 in 2009, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a New York-based non-profit institute that does research on sexual and reproductive health.

Plenty more lie in wait this year.

Last year Texas approved a provision requiring women who live within 100 miles of an abortion provider to obtain counseling in person at the facility at least 24 hours in advance of the procedure.

"States tend to copy each other, so more states may be considering similar restrictions," said O'Neill. "Women's advocates must work hard to defeat these measures because they take a terrible toll on low-income women and those who live in areas where there are few or no facilities."

O'Neill said that defeating these measures can require close attention since some are amended to larger bills.

As an example, on the federal level, the Respect for Rights of Conscience Act was an amendment to a transportation bill. Also known as the Blunt Amendment after it was introduced by GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, it would have allowed any employer or insurance plan, with or without religious affiliation, to refuse to cover any health care item or service to which it objected on the basis of religious belief or moral constraints.

O'Neill said a 2011 study by the Guttmacher Institute helped marshal nay votes because it reported that 99 percent of all sexually experienced U.S. women of reproductive age--including 98 percent of Catholics--have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning.

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Sharon Johnson is a New York-based freelance writer.