The state of the union for women’s reproductive rights

The state of this union is confident that those efforts to stymie women’s reproductive health care choices will bear no fruit in 2007.

by Abby Bar-Lev

The 34th anniversary of Roe v. Wade today coincides, ironically, with tomorrow’s State of the Union address to be delivered by President George W. Bush. So what is the state of the union for women’s reproductive freedom?

It would be surprising if President Bush mentioned women at all in his State of the Union speech. Then again, why would he? President Bush and this administration have had a despicable record concerning women’s issues.

Most recently, the Bush administration appointed Dr. Eric Keroack as assistant secretary for population affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, where he heads the Title X program. Title X is the federal program overseeing access to contraceptives and family planning funding. Leave it to this administration to appoint a man to this position who has linked abortion to breast cancer (disproved in 1997), claims that premarital sex impairs “one’s ability to forge a successful long-term relationship” (as reported in The New York Times) and stands against sex education and birth control.

On the subject of birth control, the Food and Drug Administration finally approved over-the-counter sales of the emergency contraceptive Plan B. While, on one hand, that speaks well for the state of the union’s reproductive rights, Plan B remains unavailable over the counter for women under 18. These women are arguably the most vulnerable, yet once again, underage women in this country are denied any protections of their privacy and right to personal decisions. Rather than curbing unwanted pregnancies and abortions, such denial of access creates the exact opposite scenario, sometimes with frightening and irreversible results.

Even the Supreme Court at the very beginning of 2006 upheld a state law denying the vast majority of young women their right to seek abortion without parental notification regardless of their home situations in deciding Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of New England.

In November the Supreme Court was given another opportunity to make an important decision regarding women’s reproductive health care. The Court heard arguments in Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood, challenging the federal abortion ban (known by its political title, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act) signed into law by President Bush in 2003. The absurdity and danger of the law lies in the fact that it bans abortions – possibly as early as 12-15 weeks into a pregnancy – with no exception for a woman’s health or life being in jeopardy. Now by law, an unborn fetus is more deserving of rights and liberties than the woman carrying it. What does that say about our state of the union?

On the other hand, there is cause for optimism.

The Supreme Court has not yet decided Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood, and since similar laws without a clause protecting women’s health have been struck down as unconstitutional, there is reason to hope that the federal abortion ban will soon be declared unconstitutional as well.

But the federal government was not the only entity banning abortion. States began to take that drastic and regressive action into their own hands this year, most notably the ban on virtually all abortions that passed through the South Dakota legislature last spring. But the right-wing and anti-choice crowd took a beating in November when the ban was rejected in referendum by South Dakota voters in a 56 percent to 44 percent vote. That is certainly a positive step for the health of America’s women (or at the least it is not a step backward).

Science has also advanced women’s health by creating a way to prevent cervical cancer. As reported by officials from the American Association for Cancer Research, strains of HPV (human papillomavirus) “are the most common sexually transmitted infections in the United States” and can cause cervical cancer. Today, though, there is a vaccine available that guards against it, essentially preventing many cervical cancers.

And now that Democrats are in control of Congress with Nancy Pelosi as the first woman speaker of the house and Sen. Hillary Clinton recently announcing her bid for the presidency, maybe this nation will finally see some public discussion on issues of women’s health and health care. And for the moment our Union can be confident that with Democratic control of both Houses of Congress, anti-choice legislation will be blocked from every angle.

So what is the state of the union for women’s reproductive health care? It is confident and it is optimistic. The Bush administration in its waning years continues to push hard against the right of women to access safe reproductive health care options. Yet the state of this union is confident that those efforts to stymie women’s reproductive health care choices will bear no fruit in 2007. We are optimistic that the regressive course down, which the formerly Republican-dominated Congress and the Bush administration had been leading this nation’s women, is finally beginning to turn around.

Abby Bar-Lev welcomes comments at [email protected].