Election 2012: Women's health issues on the ballot

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

By Michael Yudell

The Democrats and President Obama won decisively last week, delivering Republicans an electoral college thumping and gaining seats in a Senate they had once been predicted to lose. But even as they celebrate their victories, Democratic Party stalwarts and lovers of the 21st century everywhere can agree that one of the biggest winners in this year’s election was public health.

From Obama’s victory ensuring the life of the Affordable Care Act to the rejection of candidates around the country who attacked women’s health, public health was front and center.

This week at The Public’s Health we’ll be looking back at the election’s impact on public health. Today we focus on women’s health issues, which found themselves at the center of both state and national races. Women’s health issues may have tipped the balance in several key senate races, mostly because of the deeply offensive and downright absurd statements made by several Republican candidates about rape and birth control. Competition abounds to see who can replace Rick Santorum as the Theodoric of York of the Republican Party.

The easy victory of underdog incumbent Claire McCaskill in Missouri over Todd “if it’s a Legitimate Rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down” Akin, was due largely, perhaps wholly, to Akin’s preposterous comments about women’s bodies heretofore untold magical ability to reject a rapist’s sperm.

Then there was U.S. Senate Candidate Richard Mourdock in Indiana, a once apparent shoe-in, whose poll numbers plummeted following this doozy that I will leave to you without comment (other than to say that candidate Mourdock reminds me much more of his MacGyver namesake than his A-Team namesake): “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

There were others who were likely losers anyhow, but their archaic comments on rape and women’s health certainly didn’t help them. Here in Pennsylvania, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith seemed to equate having a baby out of wedlock with a baby born from a rape. Illinois Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, who with former Vice-Presidential Candidate Paul Ryan sought to redefine rape as “forcible rape,” claimed that science and medicine made abortion exemptions to save the life of the mother moot. Both men lost big.

MSNBCs Rachel Maddow referred to this group of anti-women’s health and, more fundamentally, anti-science and medicine charlatans as “The Walking Upright Citizens Brigade,” for reasons that should be abundantly clear, unless, of course, your knuckles happen to drag along the ground when you discuss women’s health and science.

In ballot initiatives, there were two major women’s health decisions. Florida voters rejected Amendment 6, which sought to ban “state funding of abortion services or insurance coverage that covered abortions.” The referenda would have also made it easier for the state to enforce stronger abortion-related parental-consent laws. Voters in Montana, however, approved a measure that requires notifying parents prior to a minor (under 16) having an abortion. Doctors in the state who violate the law could face six months in jail and a $500 fine.

In a perfect world, nobody would oppose such statutes. We all want our children protected from harm, and want to be there for them in good times and bad. But these laws are designed to discourage young women from having legal abortions in the face of difficult circumstances. In our quasi-Victorian culture, young women seeking abortions are often afraid of speaking with their parents, even parents they trust, and go on to have children they are not ready to have or do not necessarily want (their parents, of course, find out either way). And, in states where it must be a minor’s parent (or parents) to consent, there is concern that young women may face increased risk of abuse due to the delicate nature of the situation (judges do have discretion to excuse young women from this requirement, but again, another barrier). 

But the alienation of a majority of women voters nationwide began long-before the Republican Party’s foray into awful rape comments. 

The Party’s women's health hit list: In the last Congress, 67 anti-abortion laws were introduced, 54 of them by Republicans. Rush Limbaugh’s ad hominem attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke after she was blocked from testifying before Congress about the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate. Attempts to defund Planned Parenthood. The Republican Party platform calling for a Constitutional ban on abortions, even in cases of rape and incest.

And let’s not forget the transvaginal ultrasound fiasco in Virginia. A bill there proposed that women undergo an invasive ultrasound before having an abortion. Although that piece of the bill was ultimately removed, in March rising Republican star Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell did sign a law making his state the eighth in the nation to mandate abdominal ultrasound prior to abortion.

And don’t forget, of course, Mitt Romney’s vows to overturn Obamacare his first day in office, his support for restricting women’s access to contraception and expanding abortion restrictions, and his pledge to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood.

In a post-election haze, Republican Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, insisted in the face of all evidence otherwise that it's not “about the Republican Party needing to become more moderate,” but instead about the “Party becoming more modern.” In what sounded like a bald attempt to blame Mitt Romney for the Party’s loss, Rodgers, and many other Republicans, seem to think it's more about the messenger and who's communicating [Republican] values to every corner of this country" than it is about the Party’s positions. Good luck with that.

CNN exit polls showed that women made up 54 percent of the electorate nationally, 55 percent of them supported Obama, while only 44 percent voted for Romney. That 11 point spread helped ensure an Obama victory.

One of the biggest lessons of the 2012 election is that when it comes to Republicans and women’s health, hell hath no fury like a woman voter scorned.

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