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Women’s health has ossified into a bone of political contention.
A search through the newspaper confirms this, and the flickering of the television screen. There are barrages coming from multiple mediums and from both sides: conservative campaign articles accuse President Obama of failing to economically support women’s well-being, and democratic advertisements accuse presumptive GOP candidate Romney of undermining women’s health.
“It’s hard not to enter the complexities of this,” said Dr. Sue Tolleson-Rinehart, PhD, who is the research assistant professor of Pediatrics and the Assistant Chair for Faculty Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine, as well as an adjunct assistant professor of Political Science at the school.
Indeed, the topic is a “political battlefield,” according to a recent ABC News article, “Romney, Obama Launch Dueling ‘War on Women’ Ads,” which cites the aggressive ads tailored to female voters being issued by both camps.
But where do these stem from? The subject of abortion has consistently been a heated one during election time, and often generates discussion surrounding women’s well being. So what distinguishes the topic of women’s health in this election? What’s the particular wedge that’s separating the strategies of the major party candidates?
“The difference in this election is that ‘women’s health’ has now been framed to include access to contraceptive services,” Tolleson-Rinehart said (pictured at right). The Affordable Care Act will provide preventative services for men and women of all ages, according to the Institute of Medicine’s report on the act’s clinical services for women.
One such preventative measure according to the report, upheld by medical evidence, is “a fuller range of contraceptive education, counseling, methods, and services,” which many employers will provide to female workers under the ACA.
“This would not seem to be a controversial position, since about 98 percent of women have used contraception at some point in their lives, and because we thought we established the right to contraception as a fundamental right more than 40 years ago (in Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965),” Tolleson-Rinehart said. “But, now, access to contraception has been framed as something that is in opposition to religious liberty, much to the surprise of many.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has clarified an exemption for religious employers regarding the coverage of contraception, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a research institute centered on advances in sexual and reproductive health. Some social conservatives and Catholic officials, however, argue for an extension of the exemption to include “a far broader range of employers, including religiously affiliated schools, universities, hospitals, and charities that serve and employ the general public,” according to the institute.
Richard Epstein, a visiting scholar at the Manhattan Institute, likens the limited exemption to “a rule that requires all persons in the military to eat pork, including Jews and Muslims who find it aberrant to their religious beliefs. The religions cannot force others to toe their line. But they cannot be forced the other way. Live and let live is the only viable solution.”
With this frame of religious freedom, the chafing over women’s health and contraception access has intensified, and is leading to the solidification of two very different political strategies.
To that end, Barbara Burrell, professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University, believes that women’s care access has become, and will continue to be, a major fixture in Obama campaign’s towards women voters. “He gave a speech recently in Colorado where he was really emphasizing the effects of his health care law on women’s health,” Burrell said.
On the other hand, “Romney will try to talk in terms of economics,” likely emphasizing the importance of free markets and non-intervening health care, and the dangers of excess costs, Burrell continued. “Whereas the Obama campaign will be trying to say we need better health care across the board.”
“Governor Romney is in a somewhat more difficult position on this issue: he also needs to mobilize primary Republican constituencies, including social conservatives who are strongly against abortion,” Tolleson-Rinehart said. “Both candidates must address the tension between ‘women’s rights’ and ‘religious liberty’ created by the framing of this issue.”
In line with these predictions, supporters of the Romney team reflect a desire for noninterventionist care. Gina Covell Maddox is a Florida-based author and speaker, and founder of the national grassroots coalition, “Women for Romney 2012.”
“I agree with Mitt Romney's approach; I want healthcare to be addressed through free market solutions that keep uncaring and unaccountable government bureaucrats out of my healthcare decisions,” she said. “I want market-driven options that encourage insurers and providers to be competitive and deliver products and services we want and need.”
Currently, the polls mark a lead for Obama among female voters – with a 20-point forefront over Rommey among childless, working women, according to a Reuters’ online poll in accordance with their “American Mosaic” campaign polling initiative.
“Young people still overwhelmingly favor President Obama,” Tolleson-Rinehart said, “and the Republican party must find a way to appeal to at least some portion of these young voters, very few of whom support restrictions on contraception use.”
These poll figures have generated more campaign articles and activity focused on the female vote, according to the Reuters report.
So indubitably, poll feedback like this, the sound bites, the campaign slogans, and the advertisements solidify the fact that the women’s health – particularly women’s reproductive health – has become an integral, weighty facet in this election race.
Like Epstein, some feel that health reform legislation under Obama, like the ACA’s birth control mandate, could jeopardize religious freedom – to others, it’s viewed as a powerful leap forward toward comprehensive care.
More importantly than the campaign noise then, and the swirl of debate and media, the escalation of women’s health in the presidential race gives women a powerful opportunity to clarify what they want and need – if they choose to recognize it. This bone of contention can be wielded.
“This issue is potentially very mobilizing for young women voters,” Tolleson-Rinehart continued, “but that depends on whether they are paying attention.”