We are at a political moment that yields headlines like Politico’s recent “GOP scrambles to assuage women’s groups.” Such copy must have delighted Democrats on the Hill: It means they had managed to back Republicans into a corner. Said scramble was over the Violence Against Women Act, which contains expanded protections that Republicans have accused Democrats of adding to make them look anti-woman. Senate Republicans reluctantly allowed VAWA to pass, but on Wednesday the House passed a version stripped of those expanded protections. Since women’s groups have not been “assuaged” by that Republican answer to VAWA and the White House has threatened to veto a bill without the protections for Native American, immigrant and LGBT victims, Republicans can pick between falling in line and looking like, well, misogynistic jerks.
Democrats, it seems, have taken a page from the GOP playbook. For a long time, Republicans have introduced what looks like dead-end legislation and then used it to demagogue their opponents, like the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011, which sought to fight the non-problem, at least in the U.S., of abortions motivated by race and gender. Then there are the more successful abortion restrictions and Planned Parenthood defundings that have trickled down from the federal level to sympathetic state legislatures, where they’ve found greater success.
If Democrats want to keep the GOP on the defensive on women’s issues — and not only maintain that gender gap that shows up in most polls, but mobilize women in the base — they should seize the moment and get ambitious. After all, the political conversation around women’s rights is still overwhelmingly reactive to the conservative agenda, and what victories there have been are partial — the potential for a moderately expanded version of VAWA and eliminating the co-pay on a range of women’s healthcare services aside.
I asked advocates and activists to think big and offer up a proactive policy wish-list. “I am inclined to suggest that we introduce a bill entitled, ‘Politicians Should Leave Women the Hell Alone Act,’” says Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice. Short of that, there are four main areas of focus here: reproductive health, employment issues, sexual assault and domestic violence protections, and foreign policy. Most of these bills wouldn’t have a chance of passing with the current composition of Congress, especially the House. But why leave the realignment to the right?
Comprehensive sex education. One provision of the Affordable Care Act includes state grant money for more comprehensive sex ed, but another brings back funding for abstinence-only education. “Too often people are blaming young people for not making the right decision but denying them information about it,” says Sarah Audelo, senior manager of public policy at Advocates for Youth. That’s where the Real Education for Healthy Youth Act would come in. (It was introduced in both the House and Senate in November 2011, but wouldn’t get far in today’s House.) It would establish a minimum standard for programs receiving federal funding, including factually accurate information about contraception and STIs, as well as an LGBT-friendly curriculum. Speaking of which, Audelo says, it’s time to do away with the so-called “no promo homo” provision in the Public Health Service Act, which prohibits the alleged promotion of homosexuality.
Public insurance coverage for abortion care. The National Abortion Federation notes that in 2003, 11.5 percent of women of reproductive age were covered by Medicaid, but they’re still denied abortion coverage except in certain states or in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment. Similar restrictions apply to federal insurance coverage for servicewomen, Peace Corps volunteers and Native Americans. The Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health for Military Women Act – or MARCH for Military Women Act — would undo part of the damage. It was introduced in the House and Senate last year. More broadly, repealing the Hyde Amendment would go a long way in improving access.
Allowing nurse practitioners or physician’s assistants to provide first trimester abortions. A bill along those lines was introduced, unsuccessfully, in California. “We’ve known for years that appropriately trained NPs, CNMs and PAs have the skills and expertise to provide safe first trimester abortion care and increase women’s access to care,” says a spokeswoman for the National Abortion Federation. That access is threatened as the number of providers dwindles, which can result in later and more expensive abortions.
Making the pill and emergency contraception over-the-counter. The Center for Reproductive Rights is currently suing the FDA over its politicized handling of the morning after pill, forcing women under 17 to get a prescription. Meanwhile, some reproductive health advocates would like to see the pill itself go over the counter, currently in place in several other countries without incident.
Codifying Roe. The Freedom of Choice Act ensures the right to bear a child or the right not to, and prohibits state interference in exercising those rights.
Undoing the damage done by so-called conscience clauses. O’Brien would like to see a Protect Individual Conscience Act – “to protect the consciences of patients/employees and providers, rather than current moves to protect the ‘consciences’ of big businesses like hospitals and schools run by the bishops and other religious conservatives who suggest that corporations have consciences that trump the consciences of patients and healthcare providers.”
Equal pay. The Fair Pay Act, which would require employers to “study the internal alignment of their jobs and pay rates and fix it if women’s jobs are being undervalued,” gets introduced regularly but has never gone far, says Institute for Women’s Policy Research president Heidi Hartmann. That said, then-Sen. Obama supported it. “We need to resurrect the idea of comparable worth, of paying women’s jobs more relative to men’s jobs, because they have been historically undervalued,” Hartmann says. She adds that while pay discrimination for exactly the same job still happens, the more common phenomenon is women’s jobs being automatically paid less. Former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt, author of “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power,” notes that the Paycheck Fairness Act “strengthens laws prohibiting pay discrimination on account of gender.”
Paid family leave. Motherhood is the most important job! Unless there’s an actual workplace policy at stake, for mothers or for fathers. “Half of U.S. private sector workers don’t even have any paid sick days, so we are way behind other countries in income replacement for being sick, having kids, taking care of kids,” says Hartmann. She’d also like to see more workplace flexibility policies in place for subsidized childcare. Since pipe dreams are allowed too. This is another place where the U.S. lags behind other industrialized nations.
Caregiver credits. Retirement benefits are based on the highest 35 years of earnings, but women tend to be penalized for working fewer years in order to care either for children or elders. Hartmann proposes creating credits in the Social Security System to allow for earnings credits to caregivers. Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women has a related, narrower suggestion: “Colleges and Universities that receive federal money must include in their economic courses discussion of the essential and overwhelmingly unacknowledged economic contribution women make to the GDP through their unpaid labor as childcare providers and homemakers.”
Fixing the leadership gap. Feldt would love to see a “a multi-billion-dollar public-private initiative to stimulate the burgeoning women’s leadership programs throughout high school and college years and beyond, to inspire a flood of young women to take this country to leadership parity in the next decade.”
Sexual assault and domestic violence protections:
Ending the rape kit backlog. Despite serial outrage, an enormous backlog of DNA evidence from rape kits remains untested. The SAFER Act would create the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry, which would create an online system where victims can privately track the status of the evidence in their case. Katherine Hull of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network says it would help “take thousands of rapists off the street, achieving justice for survivors.” This one, perhaps because it involves law enforcement accountability and would reallocate existing funding, actually has a decent chance of passing — it’s about to be introduced in bipartisan fashion by Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Anti-discrimination provisions for survivors. “Just yesterday a colleague of mine got a call from Indiana about a woman who was fired because she has a protection order, and we have litigated these cases on behalf of survivors,” says Lisalyn Jacobs of Legal Momentum. She adds, “Unemployment insurance should be available to survivors of domestic and sexual violence and stalking if they need to leave their jobs because of violence against themselves or their immediate families.” Forty states already provide unemployment insurance to domestic violence survivors, but only seven provide it to both domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
Ratifying CEDAW. The U.S. is among only seven countries plus the Vatican that haven’t ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Says Feldt, “It may seem largely symbolic, but symbols drive thinking and thinking drives acting.”
Repealing the global gag rule. The Center for Reproductive Rights’ Nancy Northup called for a permanent lifting of the so-called global gag rule, which prohibits international organizations receiving U.S. funding from providing or even referring for abortions. It’s habitually implemented and rescinded depending on whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House.