Roberta Riley

(WOMENSENEWS)–We’ve heard plenty of talk about abortion in this campaign season, including during the final presidential debate last week.

But what many mainstream voters may not realize is that Nov. 4 also brings us to a crossroads in a war most have never heard of: the war against contraception.

Its leaders–most notably Karl Rove and President George W. Bush–use stealth tactics and, if pressed, mumble in code. That’s how they please hardcore social conservatives without looking too crazy to the rest of us.

But there are two recent serious and unmistakable signs of what’s going on.

In March 2007, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against female workers who simply wanted their health plan to cover contraception on the same terms it covered other preventive care as well as Viagra and Rogaine for men. (Note: Viagra and Rogaine are not preventive care.)

A second ruling, issued in late 2007 by a lower court and now on appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, allows people who run pharmacies to refuse to dispense birth control based on their belief it kills the unborn. Since then “pro-life pharmacies” have been cropping up all over the country. Today, for example, in parts of Montana, women must drive 80 miles to find a pharmacy willing to sell contraception.

Bush Will Strike at State Laws

Before he leaves office, President Bush has signalled he will use his rule-making power to boost this cause and undo state laws requiring all hospitals, including Catholic institutions, to offer emergency contraception to rape survivors. The process is already underway.

All this comes on top of Bush’s steady attacks against contraception during the past eight years.

On his first day in office, he stammered his revulsion of abortion, as he signed the so-called global gag rule, which forbids U.S. assistance to foreign groups that use funding from any other source to perform abortions, discuss abortion with their patients or lobby to change their nations’ abortion laws. In reality, he took contraception away from the world’s poorest women.

In his first budget proposal he silently tried to ax contraception out of health benefits for federal workers. He relented under pressure when the Office of Personnel Management reported contraceptive coverage added no cost to premiums.

In 2002 he appointed Dr. W. David Hager, a staunch opponent of birth control, to an FDA panel where Hager blocked over-the-counter approval of emergency contraception despite overwhelming scientific evidence of its safety and efficacy.

In 2006 he hired Dr. Eric Keroack, who believes contraception “demeans women,” to run Title X, the program that once made birth control and cancer screening affordable for millions of uninsured women. Those federal dollars now flow to groups that preach “abstinence only,” which is code for “don’t tell young people about condoms.”

He appointed over 300 federal judges, including the fellows who issued the recent rulings that threaten your access to contraception.

Where Was McCain?

Where was GOP presidential nominee John McCain during all of this? In the Senate, helping Bush whenever he could.

Over his long career, McCain voted against women’s health 125 times. At each and every opportunity, he voted against insurance coverage for contraception, against family planning programs and against medically accurate sex education. Not only did he approve all of Bush’s judicial picks, he promises to fill future court vacancies with “clones of Alito and Roberts,” the ultra-conservatives Bush put on the Supreme Court. Federal judges, whom presidents appoint for life, will play a key role in the outcome of this war.

As we compare the candidates’ plans for health care, bear in mind the Catholic Church owns a substantial portion of hospitals in the current system and has a long history of lobbying against access to birth control. Under McCain’s plan, churches and insurance companies will control even more of our health care.

McCain’s running mate selection sends the most coded message of all in this war.

Gov. Sarah Palin belongs to Feminists For Life, a group that tries to deter women from taking Plan B, which is the best type of emergency contraception now available. In two easy links from Feminists for Life’s home page, one finds volumes of misleading information designed to scare women and convince them the drug induces abortion. (It does not.)

Opposing Contraception

There are two kinds of Feminists for Life members: those who oppose all contraceptives and those who oppose the methods they consider “abortifacients,” a scientific-sounding term the group will not define. It is code for all of the most popular and effective hormonal methods.

Palin is free to believe anything. But can she separate her personal views from her public duties? As mayor of Wasilla, she cut funds for rape kits. The evidence indicates she did it to make sure women didn’t receive emergency contraception.

She even hedged when Katie Couric asked if she condones or condemns Plan B. “Personally I would not choose to participate in that form of contraception,” she said about the drug, which is simply a high dose of regular birth control pills and the safe, proven treatment for rape survivors and women who experience birth control failures.

By sheer force of logic, if Palin rejects “that form,” she also disapproves of the pill, IUD, Depo Provera, Nuva rings and patches that millions of U.S. women rely on.

Which is precisely why she hedged.

In contrast to their Republican rivals, Democratic hopeful Sen. Barack Obama and running mate Sen. Joe Biden are strong supporters of women’s health, sex education and preventing unintended pregnancy.

Throughout their years in office, both have consistently voted for access to affordable contraception.

Their plan for heath care will assure sound, sensible preventive care. In fact, Obama raised the importance of preventing unintended pregnancy in the final moments of the last debate. But time ran out and, of course, McCain changed the subject.

The writing is on the wall: Our next president will either unleash a new surge or end this war and send the troops home.

Come Election Day, the choice is ours.

Roberta Riley is a former Planned Parenthood attorney who argued and won Erickson v. Bartell Drug Company, the landmark federal court decision that prompted U.S. health plans to cover prescription contraception. In recognition of her advocacy for women, Ms. magazine named her one of its 2001 Women of the Year.

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