MALE PRIVILEGE in health care reform deepens with each line drawn in the sand. Senate Democrats got their 60th vote to close debate and move reform toward a vote today by succumbing to Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson's demands to include abortion restrictions. The reform bill passed by the House contains even more harsh restrictions.
The few women in Congress, or those pursuing office, are shrugging in political resignation. Martha Coakley, the Democratic candidate for the seat of the late Ted Kennedy, told the Globe in a statement that she supports the Senate bill even though she was disappointed in the restrictions.
Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat, felt it was a save to get what she could out of Nelson. The House bill bans insurers from offering coverage for abortions to any American who receives any federal insurance subsidies. Under the Senate bill, women who receive a subsidy for policies that cover abortion could keep that coverage but must pay into a separate account for the abortion coverage. "My goal was to try to reach some compromise ... I think we achieved that," Boxer said.
This was after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi capitulated last month to antiabortion politicians. Fellow Democrat Lois Capps of California said of the Senate compromise: "I am disappointed that women's access to full reproductive health care is again paying the price."
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The question is why women must always compromise as the men set the rules, with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn railing that even the latest compromise still "throws the unborn under the bus." Abortion is the latest example of how a male majority on Capitol Hill continues to control women, directly or indirectly. Studies clearly indicate that if women had an equal say in reform, it would take a very different shape.
"Mothers of all kind, married, single, regardless of race and ethnicity are significantly more supportive than men on issues like health care," said Hartwick College political scientist Laurel Elder. Elder and political scientist Steven Greene of North Carolina State University have collaborated on several studies detailing how gender and parenthood affect political attitudes. In research released this year, they found that mothers "are significantly and substantively more likely than their non-mother counterparts to support the government playing an active role in providing programs and services to its citizens, especially those in need." In research four years ago, they found that parental involvement was "significantly correlated with support for nationalized health care."
Elder and Greene say that attitude likely reflects "the societal expectation as well as the reality that women play the primary role in nurturing their children and take primary responsibility for their health care." According to the Kaiser Women's Health Study, 79 percent of mothers say they are the ones who choose the doctors for their children and 84 percent say they are the ones taking their children to appointments.
In telephone interviews, Elder and Green both found it ironic that male senators who are likely not the ones staying home are so demonstrative about limiting government involvement in health care. Research shows that women, particularly mothers, continue to pay silent social and economic penalties in a nation that has some of the worst parental leave policies of the industrialized world. "Millions and millions more women are going to have health care under reform," Greene said, "but a lot of them are going to be struggling to pay."
They will continue to struggle because of the men of Congress, who listen more to the insurance companies than mothers. Health reform may give more coverage than ever. It will also take away from women more rights than ever.