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Reproductive rights in political spotlight

Friday, September 28, 2012 - 9:37 am

Whether or not there's a “war on women,” women's reproductive rights have been the center of several political firestorms this year.

Not surprisingly, more women perceive a threat than men. According to a survey earlier this year by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, 31 percent of women believed there is a widespread effort to limit reproductive services, compared with 25 percent of men.

Here are some of the incidents that have made news:

•In February at a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on religious liberty and the birth control rule, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), refused to allow a woman to testify at the all-male panel, prompting three Democrats to walk out.

•A maelstrom erupted in February when Sandra Fluke testified to House of Representative Democrats in support of mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives and conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

•Also in February, the Virginia state Senate considered passing a law that would have forced some women seeking an abortion to undergo an intrusive ultrasound in which a probe is inserted into the vagina as a part of an informed consent law. Opponents likened it to state-sponsored rape. The bill passed the Virginia House, but after protests and media attention, the vaginal probe requirement was dropped from the bill.

•The Susan G. Komen for the Cure nonprofit withdrew funding earlier this year for Planned Parenthood, which performs abortions in some locations, bowing to anti-abortion pressure. The action generated intense debate. The Komen organization eventually reinstated the grant money.

•The Catholic Church and other organizations filed suit in May challenging the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandate that most insurance plans must provide free contraceptive coverage for women. The rule does not apply to churches themselves, but to affiliated nonprofits that do not rely primarily on members of the faith as employees. The new coverage is intended to remove cost as a barrier to women accessing birth control. On Aug. 1, the Affordable Care Act went into effect, but church-affiliated organizations have a year to comply. The suit is unresolved.

•Both GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and his vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan, have vowed to cut federal funding for Planned Parenthood, even though the Hyde Amendment bars the use of federal funds for abortions.

•Ryan's voting record backs up his statement to The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, in 2010, when he said, “I'm as pro-life as a person gets.” According to The Associated Press, last year he co-sponsored a bill called the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which would give a fertilized egg the same rights as a person. The bill never made it to the house floor.

•Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who is vying for a Senate seat in Missouri, implied in August that women who are victims of “legitimate rape” don't often get pregnant, saying “the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.” Akin, who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, apparently made the statement to justify his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape.

The concept has been traced to Dr. John C. Willke, former president of the National Right to Life Committee, who claimed in a 1999 article the victims of assault rape can experience emotional trauma that “can radically upset her possibility of ovulation, fertilization, implantation and even nurturing of a pregnancy.”

According to an article in The New York Times published Aug. 20, Willke reiterated that view recently, saying, “This is a traumatic thing — she's, shall we say, she's uptight,” Dr. Willke said of a woman being raped, adding, “She is frightened, tight, and so on. And sperm, if deposited in her vagina, are less likely to be able to fertilize. The tubes are spastic.”

According to the Times article, an expert on reproductive health had this to say in response:

“There are no words for this — it is just nuts,” said Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School.