McCain Mocks Women's Health
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Finally, John McCain and Barack Obama are put on record on some key women's issues. It could be a revelation for many voters, especially McCain's tone and body language in mocking health exemptions from abortion bans.
McCain had criticized Barack Obama for not supporting an array of anti-abortion bills in the Illinois state Legislature. Obama said he had not backed them because they lacked exemptions to protect the health and life of the mother.
Here's what McCain responded, his voice rising in moral indignation: "He's (for) health for the mother. You know, that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote 'health.'"
The way McCain exaggerated the pronunciation of "health," including putting in hand gestures to indicate quotations, was reminiscent of his running mate Sarah Palin's belittling of "community organizer" in her maiden speech to the Republican convention. That was Palin's thinly veiled mockery of Obama's early organizing experience in Chicago.
McCain's "health" exemption statement Wednesday showed his to be the extreme position: He differed with current law. The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down abortion bans that do not contain exemptions for the health and life of the mother.
McCain said he wants abortion decisions to be decided by the states, ending the federal guarantees for it under Roe. Asked by moderator Bob Schieffer if he would consider someone for the court who "had a history of being for abortion rights," McCain answered in a convoluted way: "I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications. But I certainly would not impose any litmus test."
The third and final network-sponsored debate between Republican presidential nominee McCain and Democratic nominee Obama touched on three key issues: appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court that will affect women's rights well beyond the landmark Roe v. Wade reproductive rights ruling; current state legislative attempts to restrict legal abortion, including health exemptions for the mother; and pay inequities as reflected by the recent Supreme Court rebuff to Alabama factory worker Lilly Ledbetter.
The network debates came as months-long talks continued about a Lifetime TV "conversation" with Obama and McCain on women's issues, with candidates interviewed sequentially rather than participating in a face-to-face debate.
Wednesday night's debate could be a taste of more to come -- or it could be all that women's groups get in terms of grilling the presidential nominees in depth this campaign.
Obama called abortion "a very difficult issue, and it is a moral issue and one that I think good people on both sides can disagree on. But what ultimately I believe is that women, in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers, are in the best position to make this decision. And I think that the Constitution has a right to privacy in it that shouldn't be subject to state referendum, any more than our First Amendment rights are subject to state referendum."
He talked about the importance of the next president's appointments to the Supreme Court. He said he would "look for those judges who have an outstanding judicial record, who have the intellect and who hopefully have a sense of what real-world folks are going through."
Then he made a segue into the pay equity issue, noting that Congress has failed so far to overturn the Supreme Court ruling against Lilly Ledbetter, for whom a bill is named. The Supreme Court had said her pay discrimination claim against a tire company came too late -- decades after she got her first paycheck that was substantially lower than men doing the same job at the same plant. The fact that she had only learned about the pay disparity recently made no difference to the justices: The time had expired.
"For years, she had been getting paid less than a man had been paid for doing the exact same job. And when she brought a suit, saying equal pay for equal work, the judges said, well, you know, it's taken you too long to bring this lawsuit, even though she didn't know about it until fairly recently," Obama said Wednesday.
"We tried to overturn it in the Senate. I supported that effort to provide better guidance to the courts; John McCain opposed it.
"I think that it's important for judges to understand that if a woman is out there trying to raise a family, trying to support her family, and is being treated unfairly, then the court has to stand up, if nobody else will. And that's the kind of judge that I want."
McCain was dismissive in his comment.
"Obviously, that law (in the Senate) waived the statute of limitations," which critics of the bill to reinforce equity claims have said would open the door for lawsuits based on wrongs that occurred "20 or 30 years (ago). It was a trial lawyer's dream."
Then McCain went on to bring up abortion and Obama's votes in the state legislature. "We have got to change the culture of America. Those of us who are proudly pro-life understand that. And it's got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who's facing this terribly difficult decision."
Talks with the campaigns for a more extended forum on women's issues have gone on since early July. CNN had been brought in as a probable sponsor as well -- and CNN then objected to the direct sponsorship by the National Council of Women's Organizations (NCWO) because some of its members had backed Obama.
NCWO's Kim Otis said only five of the 240 groups had endorsed Obama but they did include some of the heavyweights such as the National Organization for Women. And the candidates had both appeared at African-American and Hispanic forums that included individuals who backed Obama.
On the eve of Wednesday's debate, a person close to the Lifetime campaign talks said "they're still continuing."
A full-fledged debate never was envisioned. The model was more that of sequential hourlong conversations, such as occurred at the Saddleback mega-church in California that had been moderated by its pastor, Rick Warren.
Among women's organizational leaders today, there is no one like Rick Warren, a charismatic figure whose books have sold more than 25 million copies and who is a regular on national TV talking about HIV/AIDs in Africa as well as other issues that go well beyond conservative Christianity. The Saddleback audience of thousands clearly favored McCain, but Warren played it straight between McCain and Obama. And both national nominees had seen something in the debate for them.
The contemporary women's movement appears to have the support of much of the country on equity issues -- whether on the job or in sports programs for girls and women. There is broad backing for reproductive rights. The general public would be shocked to know that access to birth control is something religious conservatives want to limit. Beyond the obvious issues of equality, there's a lack of public awareness of women's perspective and needs in areas such as health and security, to name but two.
But the very success of the movement may have lowered the profile of the women's rights groups and of their leaders, rendering them unable to command the full attention of the national party campaigns. And the current combative political climate makes it difficult for multiparty groups such as the National Women's Political Caucus, which successfully championed bipartisan debate on women's issues through the 1980s.
If Lifetime were to succeed in negotiating sit-downs with the nominees, events could move quickly, perhaps with a televised show next week before the final campaign push. "The campaigns want to save the last two weeks for get-out-the-vote efforts," Otis said.
Many questions remained, including the site, whether or not there would be an audience, and choice of a celebrity moderator.
Still, one person close to negotiations said, "we can move on a dime if we need to."
Peggy Simpson worked for 17 years for the Associated Press, in Texas and in Washington, D.C.; covered economics and politics for the Hearst Newspapers; served as Washington bureau chief for Ms. magazine; and reported on Eastern Europe's transition from communism to a Democratic market economy as a freelancer during the 1990s. She has taught at Indiana University, George Washington University and the American Studies Center at Warsaw University. She currently is a freelance writer in Washington.