No Crystal Ball — Still, We Wonder

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No Crystal Ball — Still, We Wonder

Erica C. Barnett

What would a Clinton or Obama presidency look like for women? And would one such presidency be better than another? Has any moment in the campaign to this point revealed which candidate might better prioritize women’s health and rights when in office?

What would a Clinton or Obama presidency look like for women? And would one such presidency be better for women than another?

During his two terms as president, George W. Bush has done everything in his power to erode the rights of women in this country and abroad — opposing access to emergency contraception; supporting two of the most anti-choice Supreme Court justices in history; promoting harmful abstinence-only sex education programs; and supporting legislation that would redefine embryos as human beings whose rights trump those of pregnant women. For nearly eight years, the Bush administration has put women's needs last; eroded our rights in the name of "values;" and put us at risk of unintended pregnancy, violence, and disease.

But this election offers the first opportunity in a very long time to reverse Bush's anti-woman legacy. If Obama's momentum, at the moment, seems unstoppable, a strong showing in Ohio and Texas could keep Clinton in the race until August. No matter what happens in the primaries, Democrats will have a candidate with a strong pro-choice, pro-woman record in November. While presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has consistently received zero-percent ratings from every pro-choice organization that ranks candidates, both Clinton and Obama have received 100-percent ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood.

The Democratic candidates' records give a good indication why. As First Lady and a US senator, Clinton has built her reputation fighting for women's rights. A comprehensive list of Clinton's pro-choice proposals would take pages, so here are a few of the highlights: As First Lady, she helped pass the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires employers to provide unpaid leave to care for newborn babies or family members, and helped found the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancies, which set and achieved a goal of reducing teen pregnancies by one third. As senator, Clinton led the fight, in a hostile Republican-dominated Congress, to make emergency contraception available over the counter. She led the battle against the confirmation of anti-choice Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito, arguing in Alito's case that the nominee would "roll back decades of progress" for women. She led the fight in the Senate to get rid of the global gag rule, which prohibits US funding for overseas groups that use funding from other sources to provide abortions or abortion counseling, and has vowed to devote her "very first days in office" to overturning that decision.

Roe has collapsed in Texas, and that's just the beginning.

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Currently, women make just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. To help address this inequity, Clinton sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help prevent pay discrimination against women and give women tools to fight for pay equity. She cosponsored legislation to add the Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution. And she has been a strong proponent of real sex education, sponsoring legislation (along with Obama) that would replace failed "abstinence-only" sex ed with comprehensive, medically accurate curricula.

Barack Obama's record on reproductive rights and other issues that matter to women is undeniably shorter than Clinton's, though similarly consistent and unshirking. In the Illinois state senate, Obama opposed the Illinois Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which would have defined a fetus as a child, saying it would "essentially bar abortions"; voted against a statewide ban on "partial-birth abortion"; and supported legislation requiring insurance companies to cover all FDA-approved contraceptives. As a US senator, he cosponsored, along with Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, legislation that would restore birth control discounts for low-income and college women. He also cosponsored (along with Clinton) the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify Roe v. Wade as the law of the land. When South Dakota passed a law banning all abortions, Obama was the only US senator to help raise money to repeal the ban. He sponsored legislation that would effectively overturn a recent Supreme Court decision that curtails the ability of women and racial minorities to challenge past pay discrimination. He introduced the Responsible Fathers and Healthy Families Act, which would crack down on fathers who don't pay child support, fund support services for fathers and families, and support domestic violence prevention. And he cosponsored renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, which funds domestic-violence prevention efforts.

Has any moment in the campaign to this point revealed which candidate might better prioritize women's health and rights when in office? As befits their records in Congress, both senators have vowed to put women front and center in the Oval Office. But last month, on the thirty-fifth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Clinton released a comprehensive agenda for women's reproductive health care. Clinton's agenda demonstrates her understanding of the vastness, and critical importance, of the reproductive health issues on which President Bush has either stalled or rolled back progress. She has committed to appointing judges who will uphold a woman's right to choose; enacting the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify a woman's right to obtain an abortion; expanding Title X, the 32-year-old national family-planning program, which Bush has frozen at 2001 levels for the past eight years; requiring health care plans to pay for contraception; restoring discounts for birth control on college campuses; and providing women stationed at overseas military bases the same level of reproductive health care as every US citizen. Both Clinton and Obama have vowed to expand the Family Medical Leave Act to cover millions more Americans. Clinton has stated that she will implement paid family-leave programs in every state within the next eight years, expand block-grant programs that pay for child care, and prohibit employer discrimination against parents. Both she and Obama say they will require US employers to pay for seven annual days of sick leave.

The two candidates have both pledged to get serious on health care, but Sen. Clinton is the candidate proposing universal health care. For women, including the one in five women under 65 who are currently uninsured, this may be her most significant priority. Economists and pundits differ over whether Obama's eschewing of mandates will doom his health care plan or not. Obama claims that in states that have universal coverage (Massachusetts, Oregon), mandates haven't worked, but Clinton counters that it's a strength of her plan that she's not giving away universal coverage before the bargaining begins. Universal health care is a universal issue, but it's also a women's issue, because women without insurance are vulnerable to unintended pregnancy, undetected cancer, and other preventable health care problems; more likely to avoid filling prescriptions and to forgo needed health care, including preventive care such as heart disease screenings, mammograms and Pap smears; and more likely to be diagnosed late and die early.

Obama's priorities are similar to Clinton's — with a few differences of emphasis that are attractive to some feminists. As president, he has vowed to raise the raise the minimum wage — and, importantly, to link it to inflation. Women make up 58 percent of minimum-wage earners, at least one million of them single mothers. He has also proposed doubling funding for after-school programs; expanding child tax credits; expanding the Nurse-Family Partnership, which provides home visits to low-income first-time expectant mothers. And he has consistently opposed the war in Iraq, an issue of huge concern to many American women, vowing to pull all combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months. Clinton has also spoken out against the war and issued a timetable for troop withdrawals, but her vote for the war in 2003 and the perception that she is more hawkish than Obama has made many women, particularly pro-peace feminists, oppose her (At Women's eNews, Allison Stevens takes a close look at this phenomenon).

There are good reasons to pull for either of these candidates, and convincing arguments in each candidate's favor. What every advocate for women's rights can agree on, however, is that the next president must end eight years of backsliding on women's rights and restore women's issues to their rightful place at the top of his or her presidential agenda.