On International Women's Day, Congress Debates Measure To Limit Reproductive Rights


WASHINGTON -- Thursday, March 8 is International Women's Day, and Republicans in Congress are celebrating by debating a new bill that would restrict abortion rights.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on Thursday to discuss the Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (CIANA), which is sponsored by two Florida Republicans, Marco Rubio in the Senate and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the House. The bill would make it illegal for anyone but a parent to accompany a young woman across state lines to seek an abortion -- even if her parents are absent or abusive.

Perhaps more significantly, the bill is the latest in a long series of attempts by Republican lawmakers to criminalize physicians who perform abortions, to chip away at women's constitutionally protected right to decide when and if they will have a child and to otherwise politicize women's health.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), a member of both the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus and the subcommittee that heard the bill Thursday morning, said he would like to send a message to his male Republican colleagues that continue to legislate issues like abortion and birth control: Stay out of issues you don't fully understand.

"As a father, I'll be honest -- my daughter's not going to come to me with questions about why you would use the pill for medical reasons. She'd talk to my wife," he told HuffPost. "My question is, how the hell will [men in Congress] know of all the intricacies of such a personal decision, an aspect of health care that's so complicated? The absurdity of men in D.C. involving themselves with such a complicated, critical, emotional, basic right is what's mind boggling to me."

By all accounts, 2011 was a watershed year for challenges to women's reproductive rights. State legislators introduced more than 1,100 anti-abortion provisions and had enacted 135 of them by year's end. Seven states either fully defunded or made moves toward defunding Planned Parenthood, which provides basic health care, contraception, breast cancer and STD screenings to millions of low-income women each year.

On a federal level, Republicans in Congress used abortion and Planned Parenthood funding as a bargaining chip during budget negotiations and almost shut down the government in the process. They introduced mandatory ultrasound bills, tried to narrow the definition of rape to include only "forcible rape" and barred the District of Columbia from being able to use its own locally raised funds to help low-income women pay for abortions.

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In the first part of 2012, the GOP has only accelerated its attacks on abortion and family planning. Virginia Republicans introduced a bill whose original language would have required women to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure 24 hours prior to having an abortion; a modified version of the bill, which requires women to receive transabdominal ultrasounds instead, was signed into law on Wednesday. Congress shocked women's rights groups by pivoting from abortion access to birth control, attempting to overturn President Barack Obama's contraception coverage rule with Sen. Roy Blunt's (R-Mo.) amendment, which would have allowed employers to deny women any kind of health coverage for vague "moral reasons."

And the fight has leaked into the private sector. Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the nation's largest breast cancer charity, tried to pull cancer-screening grants from Planned Parenthood because some of its clinics provide abortions. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the powerful House Oversight Committee, convened a hearing on religious liberty and the contraception rule and refused to allow the Democrats' one female witness, Sandra Fluke, to speak at it. And most recently, prominent conservatives Rush Limbaugh and Foster Friess publicly equated birth control use to sexual promiscuity.

Now, despite the fact that Komen faced a public backlash for its decision to defund Planned Parenthood, the Senate rejected the controversial Blunt amendment and dozens of advertisers have peeled off of Limbaugh's show to protest his comments, the GOP remains focused on legislating women's reproductive choices.

Quigley said he believes his GOP colleagues will pursue women's health issues all year and introduce "five more bills like this" before elections in November. He says that since Obama has successfully begun to turn around the economy, Republicans are being forced to go after him on other issues -- despite the fact that that may not be a politically smart move.

"Right now, the top issue should be one of the following: jobs, the economy, Iran, and however you feel about those issues or how to solve them," Quigley told HuffPost. "Thirty percent of the mortgages in my state are underwater. Those issues should be first on the lips of everyone, and there's probably not enough hours in the day to spend on them effectively. The question shouldn't be, 'How can I keep a woman from using birth control?'"

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the repeated assaults on abortion rights and contraception have begun to rile up women who were not as politically involved previously.

"The whole thing has touched a nerve like I've never seen," she said. "There's too much of it coming at us in too many ways. Right to choose; Title X; the defunding of Planned Parenthood, the number one primary health provider for women across this country of low means; the attacks on contraception -- they're trying to turn us back to a primitive age when contraception and access to it are not available."

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who presided over the CIANA hearing Thursday morning, and the bill's main sponsors, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen, all declined to comment for this story. But Republicans deny that a "war on women" is occurring, and hope to focus attention on what they call Obama's "war on religious liberty" instead.

Issa took to the website Reddit yesterday to answer users' questions about his all-male panel on the contraception rule and his decision to deny Sandra Fluke as a witness. In his responses, he carefully avoided using the words "birth control" or "contraception," saying the issue at hand was one of religious freedom.

"First off, the hearing was on the implications of the President’s new HHS mandate on the first amendment religious liberties we all share," he said. "The Oversight Committee Dems made two last-minute witness requests who could testify on the matter of religious liberty, and we accepted the witness who fit on a panel with American religious leaders of many faiths. Your first amendment rights, your second amendment right to bear arms, your fifth amendment rights come first — before any law or mandate.

But women in Congress are not going to let the public forget what's at stake for women's health.

“The threats to women’s health care are very real, and they are only growing," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said on the Senate floor Thursday. "We saw it on a panel on birth control in the House -- that didn’t include any women. We saw it in a young woman being called horrible names for telling the story of a friend in need. We see it in Republican efforts to allow a woman’s employer to dictate her access to birth control, and we are seeing it in state laws all across the country aimed at stripping women of their rights and so much more."

“On this International Women’s Day we celebrate our gains with the clear understanding that they must always be defended," Murray said. "We join with women everywhere to ensure that progress is not reversed."

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