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Women Hurt Most by Debt Deal Cuts to Medicare, Social Security, Tuition

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The debt ceiling agreement reached this week by the White House and Congress could deal a serious blow to women’s well-being, according to leading women’s rights groups. The deal will potentially impose $1 trillion in cuts to programs that mostly serve and employ women, such as family planning clinics, food stamps, college tuition assistance and childcare. The National Organization for Women (NOW), the largest feminist organization in the country, called on President Obama to “stand up to the conservatives and Tea Party activists” and resist balancing the federal budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people in this country—namely women, and especially women of color. We speak with NOW President Terry O’Neill about the debt deal and how few women were involved in the negotiations. We also look at new federal guidelines requiring insurance companies to cover birth control with no copay, with some religious exemptions. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The debt ceiling agreement reached this week by the White House and Congress could deal a serious blow to women’s well-being, according to leading women’s rights groups. The deal will potentially impose a trillion dollars in cuts to programs mostly serving and employing women, such as family planning clinics, food stamps, college tuition assistance and childcare. The National Organization for Women, the largest women’s organization in the country, called on President Obama to “stand up to the conservatives and Tea Party activists” and resist balancing the federal budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people in the country—namely women, especially women of color.

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, 58 percent of women and 48 percent of men 75 years and older would be living below the poverty line if they did not have access to Social Security. Meanwhile, the National Women’s Law Center says women have 281,000 fewer jobs than two years ago, when the recession officially ended. By comparison, men have gained 805,000 jobs.

Rights groups contend one of the reasons women’s issues were sidelined during the debt ceiling debate is because there were so few women involved in the talks. The chair of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, Democratic Congress Member Susan Davis of California, spoke to Marketplace Public Radio about the dearth of women policymakers on Capitol Hill.

REP. SUSAN DAVIS: Women traditionally have not been in the Congress as long, and so, in terms of leadership, that tends to be a problem. What’s so important about having women at the table is that we really are the caregivers, both to the young and to the old. Women are the principal caregivers. They also live longer than men. So these issues of Social Security and Medicare are very, very central to them. And I think that’s why we really do need to have more women at the table, and we will continue to push women forward.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic Congress Member Susan Davis.

In other women’s health news, federal guidelines approved this week require insurance companies to cover birth control with no copay costs. Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, hailed the move as a, quote, “tremendous stride forward for women’s health in this country.” Meanwhile, Republican Congress Member Steve King of Iowa suggested providing free birth control would lead to the end of the entire human race.

REP. STEVE KING: If you apply that preventative medicine universally, what you end up with is you’ve prevented a generation. Preventing babies from being born is not medicine. That’s not—that’s not constructive to our culture and our civilization. If we let our birth rate get down below the replacement rate, we’re a dying civilization.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Republican Congress Member Steve King of Iowa. Although nearly all health insurance plans will have to fully cover the cost of birth control, the new mandate includes religious exemptions.

For more on the state of women’s health and well-being and also on the debt deal, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, which comprises 240 groups representing more than 12 million women in the United States.

Terry O’Neill, welcome to Democracy Now! Where were the women at the debt deal negotiation table?

TERRY O’NEILL: You know, they really were not there, Amy. Women comprise only 17 percent of the United States Congress, to begin with, and less than 20 percent of state governorships. So we don’t have enough women in elected office, to begin with. But we do have women that could have been, early on in the process, talking about this. Nancy Pelosi has been a great champion, frankly, for women throughout the debt ceiling manufactured crisis. But she was only one person. And in addition to that, because we have so few women in Congress, we therefore need the men at the table to have a clue about the impact of their decisions on women. And it’s not clear to me that those men really understand what they’ve done with this latest budget deal.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, clearly, many people will be heard, especially as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security is threatened. Why is it differentially painful for women?

TERRY O’NEILL: So, the programs that are being cut—the childcare and family planning clinics and prenatal care and job training—those are disproportionately utilized by women. And a lot of people don’t focus on the fact that those are programs that disproportionately employ women. And when I say that, what I mean is, think about those programs. Who works in them? Well, the social workers and childcare workers and educators and healthcare providers—so, predominantly women. Those are the things that have been cut immediately.

Now, the so-called “super committee” that has yet to be appointed that is supposed to propose even more spending cuts by November, that super committee is structured so that it will be looking at Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security. Women rely disproportionately on those programs because women don’t have savings to fall back on in tough economic times. Why don’t we have those savings? Well, it’s because women are paid only 77 cents to the dollar on average, the gender wage gap. But for women of color, there is a race-based, as well as a gender-based, wage gap. So African-American women are being paid just 69 cents on the dollar and Latinas just 59 cents on the dollar. You can’t save with that, so you rely much more heavily on Social Security and on Medicare to get by.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the issue of education and how it affects women, Terry O’Neill?

TERRY O’NEILL: Well, sure. You need—women need college tuition assistance, because they need that college degree. Women who have a college degree very often end up making, over their lifetime, only the same amount of money as men who simply have a high school degree. In fact, this wage disparity—this is an amazing statistic that I read recently. Over her lifetime, on average, a woman loses $400,000 to $2 million just over her lifetime just due to wage discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. I wanted to ask you about the Department of Health and Human Services issue of insurance and contraceptives.

TERRY O’NEILL: Yes, we were thrilled that the Institute of Medicine came out with its list of preventive services. This is all about the Mikulski Amendment to the Health Care Act, which requires insurance companies to cover preventive services. And the Institute of Medicine recently released its list of suggested services that really are prevention. Included in that is contraception, right? And I think it’s important to realize—to remember, this is not free birth control for women. Women pay hefty insurance premiums for their healthcare. What the insurance companies will not be able to do is to charge extra—no copays, no deductibles included in this preventative care.

Obviously, birth control needs to be included in preventive care. And the one piece that we are very disturbed about is the suggestion that there could be a religious exemption, so that religious organizations can impose their religious views on their employees by selectively withholding birth control from them. It’s outrageous. It’s wrong. Every woman in this country, no matter what religion she is, has the right to protect her own health, and birth control is a very important part of her being able to protect her own health.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Fox, where Bill O’Reilly was speaking with the Fox News contributor Leslie Marshall and Democractic activist Erica Payne about the attack on women’s health due to the fiscal cuts included in the debt deal. This is a clip from The O’Reilly Factor.

BILL O’REILLY: Leslie, how are you feeling today? How are you feeling?

LESLIE MARSHALL: I’m feeling great.


LESLIE MARSHALL: But I’m not feeling great about these cuts—

BILL O’REILLY: No, no, Leslie. Just take it one at a time.

LESLIE MARSHALL: —with Planned Parenthood, though.

BILL O’REILLY: I’m a simple man with simple questions. You’re feeling great? Are you feeling great, Leslie?

LESLIE MARSHALL: I’m feeling great.

BILL O’REILLY: OK, good, because I was worried about you and Erica, because there is an all-out assault on women’s health. And I wonder if that has reached you, if your health is being impacted by the fiscal responsibility debate?

LESLIE MARSHALL: Mine isn’t, but I’m not one of—and I have been—the lower-income women that I feel that this attack has affected and clearly will affect.

BILL O’REILLY: What attack?

LESLIE MARSHALL: Remember, Bill, that—

BILL O’REILLY: What attack?

LESLIE MARSHALL: Well, the finances of Planned Parenthood, two-thirds of the federal money that Planned Parenthood has and uses is for preventative care, whether it’s screening for cancer in breasts, the ovaries, the cervix, the uterus—

BILL O’REILLY: That’s a very worthy—

LESLIE MARSHALL: —whether it’s prenatal care, infertility counseling.

BILL O’REILLY: That’s a very worthy thing, is it not? Isn’t it very worthy?

LESLIE MARSHALL: It is very—it is very worthy.

BILL O’REILLY: Well, then why—

LESLIE MARSHALL: And Congressman Pence and others on the right want to cut it.

BILL O’REILLY: If it’s worthy—and I agree with you that, you know, any kind of advice we can give to make people’s lives better—why can’t you raise the money privately? I’m sure you could have a big party at your mansion and get all your liberal friends in L.A. to give a lot of money. You know, we raised for the Fisher House in two days a quarter of a million dollars—and I’m going to tell people about that later on—for the military families. Well, you could do that, and Erica could do that. You could raise all that money privately.

AMY GOODMAN: That was The O’Reilly Factor. Terry O’Neill, president of National Organization for Women, how do you respond to people like Bill O’Reilly who believe all money for women’s health services should be privately raised?

TERRY O’NEILL: Well, I like the idea of $250,000 for the military, and leave it at that. Let Bill O’Reilly raise the money privately for the military. And let’s use our tax dollars to actually produce healthy people and to allow people to thrive in their communities. The fact is, over half of the pregnancies in this country are unintended. Unintended pregnancies contribute significantly to overall ill health of women. Pregnancy is—even when it’s intended, pregnancy is a health issue that women need prenatal care. An alarming number of women don’t get prenatal care. The United States stands alone among all the industrialized countries with the highest rate of maternal mortality and morbidity, because they don’t get prenatal care. And infant mortality is the highest in this country, among all of the industrialized countries, because women don’t get prenatal care. So, for Bill O’Reilly to suggest that women should be deprived of healthcare, I think, suggests that he doesn’t understand public health, let alone understand the needs of over half the population.

AMY GOODMAN: Back in April, Tea Party favorite, Congress Member Allen West of Florida, spoke to his base at a meeting in Boca Raton. He painted women’s rights advocates as, quote, “women that have been neutering American men.” Interestingly enough, he then went on to suggest such women were responsible for the growing deficit.

REP. ALLEN WEST: We need you to come in and lock shields and strengthen up the men that will go into the fight for you, to let these other women know on the other side—these Planned Parenthood women, the CodePink women, and all of these women who have—that have been neutering American men and bringing us to the point of this incredible weakness—to let them know that we are not going to have our men become subservient. That’s what we need you to do. Because if you don’t do it, then the debt will continue to grow.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Florida Republican Congress Member Allen West. Terry O’Neill of the National Organization for Women, do you feel that there is a rise in women bashing, especially within the Tea Party movement? Also, is there any deeper significance for him blaming women for, of all things, the deficit?

TERRY O’NEILL: The deficit, sure. I think it’s an indication of the intellectual bankruptcy of the Tea Party movement that they—that Allen West is saying things like the feminist movement is neutering men and this contributes to the debt. It’s so illogical, and it’s so nonsensical. It really shows you, I think, that the Tea Party movement is a lot more about exciting people emotionally than about governing the country in an intelligent or thoughtful way.

The reality is that preventive measures, like the preventive measures that HHS has just adopted for women, will bring down healthcare costs, because prevention will—you can bring down deaths due to breast cancer and cervical cancer, you bring down the rate of unintended pregnancies. This will only have good impacts for the entire population, in fact. Included on that list is STD screenings, and that’s a huge public health issue, sexually transmitted diseases. So all these preventive measures are very important for bringing down the costs of healthcare.

To suggest somehow that women should be deprived of healthcare because—because we can, which is, I think, what Mr. West actually is trying to do, is just completely reprehensible. And I’m looking forward to the day when Allen West is no longer a member of Congress. I think that’s going to happen after the 2012 elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it there. Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, thanks so much for joining us from Washington, D.C.

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