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Senate Narrowly Defeats Anti-Contraception Bill as Reproductive Rights Come Under Sustained Attack

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The U.S. Senate has narrowly rejected an effort to vastly expand conscience exemptions in President Obama’s new birth control coverage rule that already allows exemptions for religiously affiliated institutions. The Blunt Amendment, sponsored by Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, would have let any U.S. employer deny contraceptive health coverage on religious or moral grounds, but it failed in a 51-48 vote largely along partisan lines. “What’s really surprising to me about the Blunt Amendment is that it did not fail 99 to one,” says Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women. “It’s appalling that politicians really think they can get away with restricting birth control.” In other reproductive rights news, a Virginia bill mandating ultrasound exams for women seeking abortions has cleared its final legislative hurdle and is expected to be signed into law. “I can’t think of any other area, in the 20 years that I’ve been practicing medicine, where I’ve been forced by the government, someone who has no medical training or background, to use a particular test or to inform a patient about information,” notes Dr. Willie Parker, an abortion provider and board member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. [includes rush transcript]

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Senate has narrowly rejected an effort to vastly expand conscience exemptions in President Obama’s new birth control coverage rule. The mandate already allows exemptions for religiously affiliated institutions. But the so-called Blunt Amendment, sponsored by Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, would have let any U.S. employer deny contraceptive health coverage on religious or moral grounds. The measure failed in a 51-48 vote largely along partisan lines. Maine Senator Olympia Snowe was the only Republican to vote against the amendment.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: With respect to the Blunt Amendment, I think it’s much broader than I could support. I think we should have focused on the issue of contraceptives and whether or not it should be included in a health insurance plan and what requirements there should be.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Senator Olympia Snowe, who has announced she will be retiring from the Senate.

The Obama administration’s mandate has spawned passionate debate over whether women should have free access to contraceptive care, either from their own employers or insurance companies. On Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney ignited a firestorm among his rank and file when he said he was against the Blunt Amendment.

MITT ROMNEY: I’m not for the bill. But look, the idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, a husband and wife, I’m not going there.

AMY GOODMAN: After the interview, Romney’s campaign quickly said he actually did support the amendment. That hasn’t stopped Democrats and Republicans alike for blasting his comments. Republican Presidential contender Rick Santorum told supporters at a rally in Georgia, quote, “We saw an insight into what’s in the gut of Governor Romney yesterday.”

In other reproductive rights news, a Virginia bill mandating ultrasound exams for women seeking abortions has cleared its final legislative hurdle and is expected to be signed into law by Governor Bob McDonnell. It includes an exception for victims of incest and rape, provided they report their assault to police. Proponents of the bill argue ultrasounds will help inform women about the pregnancies they wish to abort. But critics contend patients will be subjected to emotional blackmail, logistical hurdles and legalized bullying. The Virginia ultrasound bill is just one of several measures around the nation. Texas already has an even stricter bill on its books, and Alabama Republicans would like their own vaginal ultrasound bill passed soon.

For more, we’re joined now by two guests. Here in New York, Dr. Willie Parker is with us. He’s a physician and abortion provider and board member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health. And in Washington, D.C., we’re joined by Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Terry O’Neill, let’s begin with you. Talk about the Blunt Amendment.

TERRY O’NEILL: The Blunt Amendment is an anti-contraception, anti-birth-control provision that was actually made a lot broader. It simply says that any employer could strip any healthcare service from the employer’s healthcare plan based on any undefined religious or moral conviction. It was clearly aimed, however, at birth control, and it would allow employers to strip birth control from health plans. It’s clearly illegal. Courts have spoken very specifically that it’s not—it is not OK, under Title 7 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, to discriminate in the provision of healthcare services in a healthcare plan. And this is clearly discrimination, sex discrimination.

So, it’s—what’s really surprising to me about the Blunt Amendment is that it did not fail 99 to one. That should have been the vote. It’s appalling that politicians really think they can get away with restricting birth control. I mean, it’s one thing for the Catholic bishops to rail against birth control. It’s another thing for an elected official. Those elected officials, believe me, who voted for the Blunt Amendment will not be holding their jobs very much longer.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, well, as you say, Catholic officials rail against it, while 98 percent of Catholics use birth control. Your sense of why this enormous—this close vote on an issue like this?

TERRY O’NEILL: Well, the Republican leadership seems to have decided that attacking women’s health is somehow politically a good idea. They clearly need to divert attention away from the improving economic situation. That is not good for them politically. They’re trying to paint President Obama as having failed on the economy. But I cannot explain, honestly, why the leadership believes that attacking women’s health is good for them. The polls show—you know, Rick Santorum was poised to win the Michigan primaries by a substantial margin. He lost women in droves because of his anti-birth-control stance. And believe me, Mitt Romney, who is clearly anti-birth-control, who is very willing to enact laws restricting birth control, he is going to lose women if he becomes the nominee in the general election.

AMY GOODMAN: It was quite something to see the complete turnaround, within a couple of hours, of Mitt Romney first saying, of course, he’s for the amendment, and then that he was against the amendment. But I wanted to ask you, Terry O’Neill, about Rush Limbaugh, who made headlines on Wednesday after calling a student reproductive rights activist a “slut” for campaigning in favor of contraception coverage for women. Limbaugh made the comment during a rant on his radio broadcast.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? Makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex, she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.

AMY GOODMAN: Limbaugh ratcheted up his rhetoric Thursday, saying the student, Sandra Fluke, should post an online sex video if taxpayers are forced to pay for contraception.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: So, Ms. Fluke, and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. And I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

AMY GOODMAN: Sandra Fluke is a third-year law student and a member of the group Georgetown Law Students for Reproductive Justice. She was barred from testimony at an all-male panel on contraception on Capitol Hill last month. The day after she wasn’t able to give testimony, Fluke appeared on Democracy Now!

SANDRA FLUKE: I strongly believe that our government has to legislate for reality, not ideology. So, if we don’t provide contraception coverage and healthcare, that’s not going to stop anyone from having sex, whether they should or should not be. And we really have to take care of women’s healthcare and not worry about policing their moral choices.

AMY GOODMAN: That was third-year Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. Terry O’Neill, your response?

TERRY O’NEILL: You know, I first read Rush Limbaugh’s comments before I saw and heard them. In reading them, my reaction was, this is the rant of a 12-year-old. I haven’t seen—I actually haven’t seen that kind of language since I was in junior high school. But when I then looked at it, when I saw the video, here is a grown man being extremely—honestly, the sense that I got was it was more than bullying. It was really calling on his listeners to become belligerent towards women. It was calling on his listeners to belligerently attack younger women who use birth control as sluts and prostitutes, as women—and, you know, we know that violence against women in the sex trade is statistically much higher than violence against women elsewhere. So, it was, frankly, very dark undertones to this. I have called for Rush Limbaugh to be taken off the air as a result. And Sandra Fluke is, frankly, my hero.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re also joined by Dr. Willie Parker. You were shaking your head as you were listening to that Rush Limbaugh rant. Could you—your reaction to it?

DR. WILLIE PARKER: Well, as a women’s healthcare provider, as a man, but more importantly, as a human being, I was just taken aback that he would feel empowered to use that kind of language to refer to someone who simply disagrees with his way of seeing the world. And I think if we have tolerance for that, under the guise that it’s free speech, I think we’re on a slippery slope, if you can say anything you want. You can injure with sticks and stones; you can also injure with words. I had a great sense of shame as a man that he would use that language at that bright and courageous young woman.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Parker, can you talk about the whole controversy in Virginia, this whole idea of, first, the vaginal ultrasound probe, and then how that was changed to be just the ultrasound? But explain what is being legislated around this country. Start with Virginia.

DR. WILLIE PARKER: Well, what’s being legislated is, in my opinion, an attempt to parse away at the right to confidential legal access to abortion services for women. Since there’s no real option for overturning Roe, the goal is to parse it away such that, in application, it really has no role. When women have barriers placed by rules that impede their access to abortion care or rules that are burdensome by forcing them to interact with information that does not improve their decision making, it really is an under—it’s an attempt to undermine the basic access to the healthcare that is abortion.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And how would this ultrasound requirement work?

DR. WILLIE PARKER: Well, first of all, mandating rules by the government has no place in the doctor-patient relationship. That relationship is based on trust and confidentiality. I can’t think of any other area, in the 20 years that I’ve been practicing medicine, where I’ve been forced by the government, someone who has no medical training or background, to use a particular test or to inform a patient about information. It violates the very notion of informed consent. Consent means that you have the option of receiving information or not. And this rule would require us to—it would force us to have patients or women to interact with information that we would use, in a clinical sense, for the purposes of coercion.

An early ultrasound, before 12—early, before 12 weeks, the main use of ultrasound is to accurately date the pregnancy and to establish that a woman has normal anatomy, and maybe the number. Outside of that, it has no useful information that would inform a woman about making her decision. Women, when they have an ultrasound and when they permit for abortion care, they already know that they’re pregnant. The ultrasound is not going to improve on them knowing that and then making the decision about whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

AMY GOODMAN: And the difference between the ultrasound and then originally what the Virginia law—the law would have mandated, the probe? What are these different devices?

DR. WILLIE PARKER: Well, a vaginal probe is an instrument used in ultrasound that allows the person doing the ultrasound to, by placing the probe inside, to get closer to the object that you want to view. So, for example, the vaginal probe allows the ultrasound’s transducer, or part that collects the signal, to be right next to the uterus so that you can get a clearer image with more information. That is most useful in the extremely early stage of pregnancy. So the information that you gather from a vaginal probe ultrasound doesn’t give you any more information than what you would get out of a six-weeks transabdominal. And in fact the main use for a vaginal probe ultrasound is to locate the pregnancy, to rule out the presence of an ectopic pregnancy, which is a life-threatening condition. But it does not provide additional information that allows a woman to determine whether or not she is going to continue a pregnancy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Terry O’Neill, the implications of this Virginia law in terms of, across the country, efforts again to have the government intrude into the health—women’s own healthcare?

TERRY O’NEILL: Sure. And these ultrasound laws really are part of a coordinated campaign at the state level to produce what we are calling humiliation, ritual humiliation laws. The only purpose of these laws—they mandate medically unnecessary, non-consensual, extremely costly procedures, in which not only does the ultrasound have to be done, but the woman is forced to, in some states, view the ultrasound, and the doctor is forced to tell the woman whether there’s a heartbeat. And in Alabama, for example, Mr. Scofield, who introduced an ultrasound law, actually said that he had taken the transvaginal probe—he made an exemption for that, so that a woman—he said, “I want a woman to have a choice whether to have this ultrasound by a vaginal probe or externally.” So, in other words, his choice—and he actually used that word—for the woman is: shall I be humiliated with a vaginal probe, or shall I be humiliated with an external ultrasound? They’re completely outrageous.

And they really are part of—as the doctor said, they are part of this coordinated campaign to chip away at women’s ability to access ordinary healthcare. One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. And it’s a really common, necessary part of women’s reproductive healthcare. But these laws are making it harder and harder for physicians to provide standard medical care, because they are so hemmed in by all different kinds of requirements.

AMY GOODMAN: And Dr. Parker, the use of contraceptives for actual medical care, not to stop conception, but—actually, when Sandra Fluke was on our show, the Georgetown law student, she talked about one of her friends at school who needed it to treat a condition, and because she wasn’t able to get it, she ended up having a hysterectomy, because she wasn’t able to treat at an early stage what she needed to.

DR. WILLIE PARKER: Sure. We, all the time in medicine, use drugs or medications that come to market by FDA approval for a primary indication, and then there’s secondary. The non-contraceptive benefits of hormonal contraception are as prevalent and, for many women, as important as the ability to prevent an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. For example, women who suffer serious and debilitating symptoms with their menstrual cycle, or PMS, as it’s commonly known, simply by being able to regulate her menstrual cycle, she can be relieved of debilitating symptoms and continue to be functional.

The patient stories are the best ones. And I think what’s at risk if we paint with a broad brush and lose the ability to have women have access to contraception pills for non-contraceptive benefits—I think of a patient I had by the name of Ashley, 14-year-old prodigious soccer player in the ninth grade who, in the early part of her menstrual cycle, had very irregular periods and sometimes would bleed down to anemia. Her mother brought her in to see me to find out what we could do. Early, oftentimes, when women first start their menstrual cycles, they’re very irregular. So Ashley, who was not sexually active, wanted to have some way of not interrupting her ability to play soccer. So, in consultation with her mother and her, we figured out the best way to regulate her menses was to start her on birth control pills. Now, if Ashley’s purse falls on the floor and her pills fall out, people will assume that she’s sexually active. But there are other contraceptive benefits. And that’s what would be lost if we paint with a broad brush and allow contraception to be politicized, such that everyone loses their access that should be able to use it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both very much for being with us, Dr. Willie Parker, physician, abortion provider, board member of Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, and Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, V-Day founder Eve Ensler on women’s bodies as battleground and on the first anniversary of the City of Joy in Congo for rape survivors. Stay with us.

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