News / USA

Access to Birth Control Sparks US Political Controversy

Cindy Saine

Women's access to birth control pills has emerged as a hotly-debated topic on Capitol Hill and in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.  The Obama administration fueled the debate by proposing that all employers -- including religious institutions such as hospitals and universities, but not churches -- be required to offer health insurance plans to their employees that include free contraception. .

"What I want to know is where are the women?  When I look at this panel, I don't see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney.

Democratic lawmakers expressed outrage when the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing on the Obama administration's birth control coverage mandate.

Republican chairman Darrell Issa defended the panel.

"This hearing is about religious freedom.  As you will note, the men that you have noted come from denominations other than Roman Catholic," he said.

A week later, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi held a hearing on women's health and birth control, and invited the woman witness that Democrats wanted for Issa's panel

"Democrats are prepared to hear from a single witness today, our Georgetown [University] law student Sandra Fluke," Pelosi said.

Fluke said the Roman Catholic university she attends does not cover birth control as part of its health insurance plan for students.

"Contraception, when it first became available, was a revolution in this country.  It allowed women to enter employment and educational opportunities that had previously not been accessible because they were unable to control their reproduction in the same way.  And I just can't imagine rolling back the clock on that progress," Fluke said.  

Birth control is also an issue in the U.S. presidential race.  Republican hopeful Rick Santorum speaks out repeatedly against birth control.

"Many in the Christian faith have said, 'Well, that's okay; contraception is okay.'  It is not okay.  It is a license to do things in the sexual realm that are counter to how things are supposed to be," Santorum said.

Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call writer Ambreen Ali says she did not expect birth control to be a campaign issue.

"Given the way that the economy was going for the past couple of years and the focus on jobs, it is a little bit surprising that we are talking about a social issue such as birth control.  But this has always, you know, women's health and abortion and birth control has always been a really big issue in this country," Ali said.

Some political analysts say criticism of the president over birth control might help Republican presidential hopefuls win over conservative voters in their primary election fights, but that it will likely hurt their chances with women voters in the general election.  Recent surveys show President Obama's public approval rating among women is climbing.

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