The contraception debate has caused women to sit up and take notice of the presidential race, if they weren’t already paying attention. I realize it’s a little hard to get excited about this primary season. But mess with a woman’s reproductive rights and you stir up a hornet’s nest. It has served as fuel for Democrats’ fire and that of organizations such as EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood, as they continue to hammer away at the Republican presidential hopefuls for their various stances on whether federal mandates on health insurance should cover contraception. The “War on Women” has to be stopped, they argue. Vote Democrat.
The Republican National Committee has fought back with a new ad called “Obama’s War on Women,” featuring female media personalities like CNN’s Erin Burnett skewering Obama administration and campaign officials about Bill Maher’s remarks about women (like calling Sarah Palin the c-word and referring to a FOX host as a “blonde twink”), given that he donated $1 million to a pro-Obama super PAC. The ad also notes journalist Ron Suskind’s book “Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President,” released last year, which highlighted tensions between the Obama administration and women working in and around the White House.
But some high-profile Republicans are saying “move on.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday that Republicans “need to get off” the contraception topic, saying, “I think we ought to respect the right of women to make choices in their lives.”
“I don’t think we should spend a lot of time talking about this,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told me during a town-hall meeting in Kearny, New Jersey on Monday, March 19 – a response that received loud applause from the audience, only a handful of whom, by the way, were women of an age who actually might be using any form of contraception.
I attended the town hall because I had never actually seen Christie in person, and given the fact that this rising star of the Republican Party is on a short list of popular vice presidential names swirling about, particularly if Mitt Romney should win the Republican nomination, I figured “why not?” Whereas Christie used to be very adamant – publicly, at least – about not being anyone’s No. 2, he seems to be a little more accepting of the idea of late.
As I raised my hand as high as I could in hopes of getting called on to ask my question about the contraception debate. Lo and behold, the kind governor called on me.
Given the fact that this controversial topic had taken center stage in recent weeks on the campaign trail, and that he was stumping for Romney and even a possible vice presidential contender for the former Massachusetts governor, I asked Christie how he would advise Romney to respond, particularly given that the Democrats are painting this issue as part of the GOP’s “War on Women.” Republicans obviously are going to need women’s support come November if they want to beat President Obama, I added. It’s no secret the GOP needs some better PR on this particular issue (I didn’t say the latter part of the sentence out loud).
“Women should have access to affordable contraception if that’s what they want to do,” Christie said. “I don’t think this should be an argument or a debate on our country.”
“I think it’s a silly issue for us to be spending time on [this], especially when we have so many people in this country still out of work, when we have so many people whose houses are worth less than their mortgages, when you have people who are really struggling in economic ways,” he continued.
“We should be spending more time talking about what’s happening in the Middle East, we should be spending more time talking about what’s going on with the debt crisis in Europe and how it’s going to affect the American economy,” and other international issues and how they affect us here at home,” Christie said.
Christie said there are “smaller aspects of the debate we can discuss” that have merit, such as whether the Catholic Church, which is opposed to contraception, should be required to pay for contraception in its health plans. But that issue has “morphed into” a bigger debate over something that should instead be “everyone’s personal choice.”
The governor then used the opportunity to tout the fact that New Jersey has increased money available for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), or community health centers, across the Garden State, where women – and men – can receive care even if they do not have health insurance. These visits can be for reproductive and pre-natal care (yes, those in need can receive prescriptions for contraception), gynecological exams, or for general physicals, mammograms, and even mental-health, x-ray, dental, podiatry and geriatrics services. There are 20 federally designated and funded comprehensive primary care centers in New Jersey, with 103 sites for low-income people that provide dental, pediatrics and health care to both women and men.
“We have to make it more accessible for women and men for affordable health care,” Christie said during the Kearny town-hall meeting, adding that these types of one-stop-shops are better than “stand-alone” clinics where you can only get one or two services (aka, Planned Parenthood, which Christie has eliminated more state funding for in the past).
While McCain and Christie are right – that such issues are highly personal ones – women take it personally when those decisions are being put in the hands of people who they think don’t have a clue. And even if the national debate on the issue is fading, the issue at the state level is heating up as some legislatures try to restrict coverage of contraception.
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that an estimated 10.7 million women use oral contraceptives, and about 85 percent of large firms cover prescriptions contraceptives in their largest health plans. As of February, at least 26 states had laws requiring insurers that cover prescription drugs also provide coverage for any FDA-approved contraception (New Jersey included), while 21 offer exemptions from coverage, usually for religious reasons (New Jersey included here, also).
But the Republican-led Legislature in Arizona, for example, is close to passing a bill that allows all employers to opt out of providing contraceptive coverage if doing so would violate their moral or religious beliefs. Arizona women would have to provide their were taking birth control drugs for a medical reason rather than to prevent pregnancy if they want to get reimbursed through their employer-provided health care plan, if the bill passed. In the name if religious liberty, state lawmakers in Georgia, New Hampshire, and Idaho are trying to expand exemptions for contraception coverage, while other states are trying to pass resolutions condemning the Obama administration’s coverage rule.
Depending on where you live, ladies, you may have to refocus your fury toward your state lawmakers now.
Guest contributor Liza Porteus Viana is a journalist with more than 12 years of experience covering politics. She also covers business, intellectual property and homeland security for a number of media outlets, and is editor of genConnect.com. Like many other moms, she is always trying to find that oh-so-elusive work-life balance as a full-time freelancer with a toddler at home in New Jersey. She previously worked at FOXNews.com as a national and political correspondent, and National Journal as a technology policy writer in Washington, D.C., and her work has appeared in publications such as Worth Magazine, Portfolio, PoliticsDaily, The Huffington Post and Forward Magazine. Liza tweets at @lizapviana and is on Facebook. She also blogs at lizapviana.com.