“Where are the women? When I look at this panel, I don’t see one single woman, representing the tens of millions of women across the country who want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive health care services. Don’t we owe it to the tens of millions of American women whose lives will be affected to let just one, just one woman speak?” – Representative Carolyn Maloney, D-NY[i]
Over the course of the past few months, policies surrounding reproductive health care services have become the center of a contentious debate in the United States of America. The controversy over access to contraceptives, specifically hormonal forms of birth control, gathered steam in the wake of growing disputes regarding the inclusion of a contraceptive mandate in the new health care legislation. While churches are exempt from the ruling, the contraceptive mandate holds that church-affiliated employers are required to cover contraceptives.[ii] This provision initially evoked a firestorm of opposition, with challengers characterizing the mandate as an infringement upon religious freedoms. Soon after, the Republican House Majority tasked the Oversight and Government Reform Committee with organizing a panel to discuss the implications of the new policies.[iii]
However, the panel did not include even one single woman. Rather, the panel was comprised solely of male religious leaders. Committee Chairman Representative Issa rejected the testimony of the one prospective female witness, Sandra Fluke, on the basis that she was not “appropriate nor qualified” to speak on the matter of religious freedom since she was not a member of the clergy or a relevant religious-affiliated organization. Representative Issa argued that the panel’s concerns related to “freedom of religion and conscience” and, as a consequence, that Fluke’s testimony about reproductive rights was irrelevant.[iv]
This logic is questionable for a variety of reasons. Firstly, women have historically been excluded from access to positions amidst the clergy and other high-ranking religious positions. Restricting access to the panel on the basis of high-ranking religious authority clearly sidelines the opinions and concerns of women whose wellbeing this legislation, arguably, is most likely to affect. Secondly, objections to the witness on the basis that she was not qualified as a religious commentator illustrates that the panel was prioritizing religious objections to the law over practical health concerns of women.
Fluke’s testimony, later heard before an informal forum of Democratic representatives and broadcast on YouTube, provides clear and indisputable evidence of the serious economic, medical and psychological tolls that restricted access to contraception can place on women.
- Firstly, Fluke calls attention to the fact that contraceptives can cost over $3,000 in a given year, constituting a very real financial burden for women. [v]
- Secondly, she includes a personal story about a friend who had been denied birth control coverage at Georgetown University because of the institution’s religious affiliations. [vi] The friend discussed was in need of contraceptive services for treatment of ovarian cysts. Due to barriers to access of contraceptive services, this woman ultimately lost an ovary.[vii]
In addition to these direct consequences, there are also serious unintended indirect effects that serve to reinforce preexisting patterns of race, class and gender inequalities. Due to the costs, barriers to contraceptive access place women from lower socioeconomic and/or historically marginalized groups at a clear disadvantage. In doing so, these regulations institutionalize different hierarchies of privilege and entitlement. By reinscribing economic disparities across society, these measures limit opportunities for economic and social mobility and constrain opportunities for women to pursue their ambitions and succeed.
Aside from the financial burdens restricted access to contraceptives place on women, there are also serious health implications. As illustrated in Fluke’s testimony, hormonal forms of birth control are used not merely as contraceptives but also as medical tools to treat different health complications. Thus, contraceptive barriers can have serious consequences for women’s physical and mental wellbeing. Privileging religious interests over the varied health concerns of women illustrates a profound misunderstanding of female anatomy as well as the diversity of uses of hormonal forms of birth control.
These issues highlight the pressing need for greater representational parity of women in political bodies. In order to maintain a robust democracy, it is necessary that the concerns of different subsets of the population be properly represented. The presence of more female legislators improves the quality of deliberation and debate by injecting a greater variety of voices and perspectives on different issues.[viii] Moreover, in order to have truly effective, good public policy, it is necessary to consider the manifold ways in which a legislative proposal will affect different segments of the population. Monopolizing the debate in favor of one group allows a minority with limited information on the subject at hand to dictate public policy and alienate the interests of substantial subsets of the population.
Women constitute only 16.8% of the House of Representatives, and only 17% of the seats in the Senate.[ix] Within a context of constant attacks on reproductive health care services, the underrepresentation of women is a serious problem. Reproductive needs and health care concerns are relevant to biologically female experiences and anatomy. Although male legislators can inform themselves on relevant medical concerns, health concerns of women affect female bodies and wellbeing. In many ways, reproductive health concerns are relevant to exclusive female experience. Thus, it is essential that women are able to speak on this issue.
We must encourage and support prospective female leaders to ensure effective representation in our political legislatures. In order to facilitate easier passage to public office, it is critical that women build support networks and contribute resources towards this common goal. Moreover, in the interim, we must continue to use the informal and formal channels available to convey our concerns to the wider community, and to build support and dialogue across society. Whether it be through direct action—in the form of protest, journalism and blogging, or contact and appeals to legislators in Congress, we must continue to actively engage with the system and voice our concerns in order to provoke real and lasting change.
[i] “’’Where Are the Women?’ Outrage after Birth Control Hearing Is Led by Panel of Five MEN.” Daily Mail. 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2102411/Birth-control-hearing-Capitol-Hill-led-male-panel.html
[ii] Miller, Sunlen. “Obama Contraceptives Mandate Losing Senate Democrats?” ABC News. ABC News Network, 09 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/obama-contraceptive-mandate-losing-senate-democrats/
[iii] “’’Where Are the Women?’ Outrage after Birth Control Hearing Is Led by Panel of Five MEN.” Daily Mail. 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2102411/Birth-control-hearing-Capitol-Hill-led-male-panel.html
[iv] Shine, Tom. “Rep. Darrell Issa Bars Minority Witness, a Woman, on Contraception.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/rep-darrell-issa-bars-minority-witness-a-woman-on-contraception-2/
[v] Shine, Tom. “Rep. Darrell Issa Bars Minority Witness, a Woman, on Contraception.” ABC News. ABC news Network, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/rep-darrell-issa-bars-minority-witness-a-woman-on-contraception-2/
[vi] Shine, Tom. “Rep. Darrell Issa Bars Minority Witness, a Woman, on Contraception.” ABC News. ABC news Network, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/rep-darrell-issa-bars-minority-witness-a-woman-on-contraception-2/
[vii] Shine, Tom. “Rep. Darrell Issa Bars Minority Witness, a Woman, on Contraception.” ABC News. ABC news Network, 16 Feb. 2012. Web. 04 Mar. 2012. <http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2012/02/rep-darrell-issa-bars-minority-witness-a-woman-on-contraception-2/
[viii] Mansbridge, Jane. “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent “Yes”" The Journal of Politics 61.3 (1999): 628-57.
[ix] “Facts on Women in Congress 2011.” Center for American Women and Politics. Rutgers. Web. 05 Mar. 2012. http://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/fast_facts/levels_of_office/Congress-CurrentFacts.php