What Does an Election Year Mean for Women's Health and Rights?

It's that time again. It's an election year, when the easiest thing to lose actually isn't the vote. It's perspective.

In 2011, Congress' cup runneth over with attempts to limit or restrict completely women's health and rights, both at home and abroad. In 2012, there is a presidency at stake -- so what does that mean for women's health and rights in the coming year? How will political posturing and the race for votes affect what really matters? Here's our take on what to anticipate:

  • More attacks on women's health and rights, especially legal, affordable access to birth control and abortion services both at home and abroad: This time, we expect they'll come in the form of attack ads or debate topics, accompanied by the usual false and distorted information. In an election year, it's part of a strategy to demonize women's health and rights, and the candidates that support them. Voter beware: Women's health and rights are a lightning rod for controversy, and they are easy to ignore or betray for the sake of votes. We saw it last year with the Affordable Care Act, when the administration sacrificed abortion coverage for the sake of getting the act passed. Our health and rights are in a tenuous position right now, more so than in other years, and we can't afford to let politicians abandon us just because sticking with us might seem politically inconvenient.

And keep in mind that supporting women's health and rights is not only the right thing to do, it's the politically savvy thing to do: Eight in 10 American voters say that when it comes to policies around family planning, the debate focuses too much on abortion. They believe we can find common ground on providing access to contraceptives and want Congress to move forward on a broader set of issues like reducing unintended pregnancies by increasing access to birth control and information about reproductive health.

  • Stalled, compromised, or anti-woman legislation: It's likely that otherwise friendly legislators will want to avoid polarizing topics, so we're anticipating that things like the Helms and Hyde amendments, which restrict federal funding for abortion overseas and at home respectively, are likely to be ignored this year. That means they will not be challenged, and could be attached to other pieces of legislation without any opposition -- so we could lose an entire year of potential progress. We're also anticipating that attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and international family planning, or write the Global Gag Rule into law could make encore appearances, if politicians think taking a hard line against women's health and rights will garner votes.
  • We can't afford to take a year off, and we can't afford to sit back while politicians treat women's health and rights as expendable depending on the political climate. Because the noise of the political races can be deafening to our issues, our unified voices are needed this year more than ever.

  • Smoke and mirrors: Through all the noise, it's our job to keep focused on what matters. It can be hard to discern what's important from what shows up on the front page. Some things we know that matter, but may not reach the headlines:
    1. Women's health and rights includes legal, affordable access to voluntary family planning and safe abortion services both at home and abroad. The ability to make important decisions about the number, timing and spacing of one's children, and to access the information and means needed to exercise voluntary choice, is one of the most basic human rights for individuals.
    2. Supporting voluntary family planning programs in developing countries would have dramatic results: a quarter of a million maternal deaths would be averted, unintended pregnancies would drop by 53 million, and 1.7 million newborns would be saved.
    3. Family planning is essential to HIV prevention and treatment: Barrier methods, such as female and male condoms, are the only tools that protect against HIV transmission and allow women to plan and space their children. Attacks on family planning are attacks on HIV programs, and we can't compromise the U.S. response to a global pandemic to save a politician's skin.

    An election year means that women's health and rights are even more vulnerable to political exploitation than in previous years. Our job as advocates is to be aware, and listen for what matters. There is an office to win, but there are also rights to lose.