In this time of economic hardship, the surprising political issue that's received a great deal of media coverage and the public's interest of late is the "War on Women." Rather than focusing on how to get people working again, Congress and state legislatures across the nation are instead taking up issues that many thought were settled decades ago, such as reproductive rights and equal access to comprehensive health care in the workplace.
Some pundits claim that there is no "War on Women," but the controversial bills that have been introduced in federal and state legislatures indicate otherwise. For instance, in the first three months of 2012, 45 of the 46 state legislatures that have convened this year saw 944 provisions related to reproductive health and rights. So far, 75 of these are abortion restrictions that have been approved by at least one legislative chamber, with nine being fully signed into law. This anti-woman legislative push is disturbingly effective, but it is a drop from the 127 abortion restrictions approved by at least one legislative body in the first quarter of 2011.
With these kinds of numbers it's certainly fair to say that a national battle is being waged against women. But who's behind this destructive movement? Among them are churches, state political organizations, and local advocacy and non-profit groups, which all have the ability to influence local voters through church services and local organizing. Their ability to mobilize adherents and modify legislation makes them a major participant in the effort to institutionalize discrimination against women.
Take for instance the recent actions of the Arizona Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the state's bishops, and the Center for Arizona Policy, a conservative religious-right advocacy group. These groups recently revived legislation in Arizona to allow businesses to opt out of providing contraceptive health-care coverage for religious reasons. Make no mistake about it; this bill was revived so that religious-based employers could discriminate against their female employees.
Another example of the attack on women by these groups is the struggle around the Reproductive Health Act in New York, which would codify the right to use contraception and allow late-term abortions if a woman's health could be impacted by carrying the pregnancy to term. The bill is opposed by the state Catholic Conference, which calls it an "extreme proposal" that would "expand access to abortion and make New York State a safe haven for late-term abortionists." This opposition by the Catholic Church is clearly discriminatory and it's taking a toll on the political process.
But state and local conservative religious groups aren't the only players in the effort to relegate women to second-class status. National advocacy organizations play a large role in shaping the debate and influencing both state and federal legislation. Take for example the recent nationwide rally to "Stand Up For Religious Freedom" in more than 140 cities where Americans gathered to protest ObamaCare's perceived restriction on religious freedom. Those who organized this massive effort were from national conservative religious groups such as the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Alliance Defense Fund, both of which are bringing litigation on behalf of religious employers who don't want to provide contraceptive care to their employees.
But that isn't all. These national groups are slick lobbyists as well. When the Department of Health and Human Services required all businesses, including those affiliated with religious organizations, to provide contraceptive care to their employees, the opposition of national religious groups like the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops caused the Obama administration to compromise by delaying this rule for a year. Such groups refused to accept this compromise and have continued calling on the administration to completely exempt from this requirement all employers with even a loose affiliation with a religious organization. If successful, this will force many women to choose between unemployment and jobs that don't afford them the same comprehensive coverage that their male coworkers receive.