Ladies Last

Polls currently show that women, who vote less predictably than men, may choose the next president of the United States. In doing so, they will be affecting the fate of women around the world. A look at the last four years gives an indication of what’s at stake.

Earlier this month, the Bush administration rejected a United Nations resolution that would have encouraged the release of women and children hostages and helped prevent acts of rape, sexual violence and sex slavery against hostages. The U.S. was the only member of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women to reject the resolution. Why, in the midst of his so-called War on Terror and during Women’s History Month, would the administration refuse to sign a resolution condemning violence, rape and torture against women hostages?

The government rationalized their refusal by pointing out that the resolution contained language reaffirming the Beijing Platform, an historic agreement on women’s and children’s health and rights reached during a 1995 Beijing meeting that built upon an encounter in Cairo in 1994. During ongoing meetings about this platform over the past few years, Bush officials had failed in their attempts to delete the words “reproductive health” and “condoms” from the document and to restrict teen’s access to sexuality education and services. Because these words were still in the document, the U.S. rejected the resolution.

“This is a devastating blow to women around the world,” said June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Program, in a statement about Bush’s refusal to sign the U.N. resolution. “The actions of the Bush administration mean more women will continue to die because of inadequate reproductive rights and health programs.”

During a teleconference from a meeting of reproductive rights agencies in Chile the day before the UN vote, women’s advocates from around the world blasted the Bush’s administration attempts to stifle international family planning services and his budget cuts in world development programs that will directly impact services available to women in Latin America.

“We see this as a manifestation of a larger war on women’s safety and dignity,” said Kavita Ramdas, leader of the Global Fund. She points out that Attorney General John Ashcroft does not support regulations imposed by former Attorney General Janet Reno to grant asylum to domestic violence survivors. Ashcroft is reportedly reconsidering Reno’s decision in the asylum case of one specific Guatemalan woman, Rodi Alvarado, whose husband has threatened to kill her if she returns home.

Even in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Bush administration has specifically said it is supporting greater rights for women, reports from Madre and other human rights organizations show otherwise. Fundamentalist practices are reportedly as bad as ever in Afghanistan and political forces poised to take power in Iraq are if anything more regressive in regards to women’s rights than Saddam Hussein’s regime. The crushing poverty and destruction in both countries as a result of the U.S. invasions hits women and children hardest.

Policies on the world stage mirror policies at home in the U.S., where the last four years have seen dramatic changes in reproductive rights, health care, child care and education, and affirmative action. Most recently, with the appointment of federal appeals court judges William Pryor and Charles Pickering, the administration is fostering a national and judicial climate where the separation of church and state becomes almost non-existent. Pickering, appointed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, has called for a constitutional amendment making abortion illegal. And Pryor, appointed to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, has called Roe v. Wade “the worst abomination in the history of constitutional law.”

Other judicial nominees currently being considered by Bush are equally dismissive of reproductive rights. They include Priscilla Owen, who tried to rewrite Texas state law to outlaw choice; Carolyn Kuhl, who urged the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade during the Reagan years; Janice Rogers Brown, who voted against assuring women equal coverage for contraception on the Supreme Court in California; and Diane Sykes, a Wisconsin judge who praised two abortion clinic protesters and gave them lenient sentences. Another nominee, James Leon Holmes, has called pro-choice activists “Nazis” and has said that “the wife is to subordinate herself to her husband.”

With the passage of the so-called “partial birth abortion” ban last year, a term so vague it could apply to almost any procedure done in the third trimester, the administration not only made abortion inaccessible to many women who need it for serious health and social reasons -- it also sets a precedent to make healthcare providers leery to perform even abortions that don’t fall into this category, for fear of being erroneously prosecuted.

Earlier this year Ashcroft subpoenaed abortion-related records from hospitals including Northwestern University Hospital in Chicago and the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York to see if abortions they did were “medically necessary;” clearly invading the privacy of women and doctors in an intimate and personal decision and procedure. The Justice Department also tried to subpoena the abortion records of six Planned Parenthood affiliates as part of their defense against a lawsuit challenging the partial birth abortion law.New York congresswoman Louise Slaughter called the subpoenas “the latest example of this administration’s willingness to go to any length to restrict a woman’s right to choose.” Facing intense pressure, the Justice Department dropped its subpoenas in the Planned Parenthood case, and a federal judge in Chicago blocked the subpoenas against the hospitals.

The National Organization of Women notes that during an announced summer 2001 campaign by anti-abortion extremists, Ashcroft originally refused to provide protection to clinics including a Kansas clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller, who had been shot by extremists in 1993. Only after pressure from abortion rights groups did the Justice Department provide protection in keeping with the FACE (Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances) Act.

The administration has cut health care for poor, working class and even middle class Americans in general, and women, especially single mothers, are likely to bear the brunt of the cuts. Senate bill 2061 specifically attacks the health care rights of women. This bill, titled the “The Healthy Mothers and Healthy Babies” Act, puts a $250,000 cap on a woman’s ability to sue for malpractice relating to gynecological and obstetrical services. The bill not only protects doctors but more importantly the insurance companies and drug manufacturers who have so much pull with the administration.

“If this bill passes and is signed into law, women and their children will pay the price,” said National Organization for Women executive director Kim Gandy. “The supporters of this legislation are seeking to deny justice to women, some of whom may never be able to have a child” as a result of the malpractice.

Through judicial appointments, proposed legislation, and a foreign policy that puts financial and political interests ahead of human needs, women’s lives are being decided by the Bush administration. Come November, U.S. women may choose to change that.

Kari Lydersen, a regular contributor to AlterNet, also writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago. She can be reached at


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