(Ariel Rothfield/ Medill)


WASHINGTON—While the economy still tops the talking points of Republican presidential candidates, the battle over access to birth control and other women’s health issues has sprung to life on the primary campaign trail as a hot-button issue that some say will drive women away from the GOP.

Until recently, the election had been mostly dominated by the economy and high unemployment rates. But now, social issues like contraception and birth control access are driving the political conversation.

“I think the Republican primaries have put a lot of emphasis on certain women’s issues and unfortunately they are choosing the ones that are politically expedient, not necessarily the ones women want to talk about,” said Lisa Maatz, director of Public Policy and Government Relations at the American Association of University Women.

Social issues first emerged on Feb. 2 when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation announced it was ending its grants to Planned Parenthood. After three days of criticism from politicians and the public, the foundation reinstated its funding.

This incident was quickly followed by a standoff between the White House and the Catholic Church over an addition to the health care law that required that all employers to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.

Congressional Republicans joined the fight, unsuccessfully attempting to pass an amendment that would allow employers to opt out of providing birth control. President Barack Obama quickly exempted nonprofit religious organizations from the requirement, moving the onus of coverage to insurance companies.

Within days, birth control and contraception became a heated talking point on the GOP campaign trail.

“These issues are something the Republican [presidential candidates] seem to have really locked onto,” said Maatz. “But their positions don’t seem to be reflective of where most women are at.”

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has taken a forceful position on social issues. On the campaign trail, Santorum has argued that the wide availability of birth control has had “negative moral and social impacts” on the country.

Although Mitt Romney is more socially moderate than his competitor, the former Massachusetts governor also rejected President Barack Obama’s mandated health care plan.  At an event in Fargo, North Dakota, Romney said requiring institutions to provide birth control violated the First Amendment.

According to survey released by the Centers of Disease Control, virtually all women ages 15 to 44 have at one time used some form of contraception.

“The idea that major party candidates would be questioning birth control is really shocking,” said Lois Uttley, co-founder of Raising Women’s Voices. “Contraception was legalized for married people in 1965 with the Griswold Supreme Court decision. For most Americans, this has been a settled issue ever since.”

The latest comments from the Republican candidates have aimed to energize the party’s conservative base. Yet these comments have enraged many moderate and independent women—one of the most important electoral swing votes.

“The issues have really hit home and the reality is women are not liking what they are hearing,” said Maatz. “These are the few issues where women will split with their families and church and go to the ballot box to vote for who they want—not for who their husband told them to vote for.”

Charles Cook, editor of The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns, said focusing on social issues will hurt the Republicans in the general election.

“This year, it seems that Republicans have become self-absorbed and obsessed with their conservative base,” said Cook. “They seem unable to acknowledge or unwilling to care that the rest of the electorate is watching and getting turned off by overheated rhetoric almost guaranteed to alienate all but the most conservative voters.”

(Ariel Rothfield/Medill)

From 1992 to 2008, Democrats won the overall women’s vote in every presidential election. But in the 2010 midterm election, women overwhelmingly supported Republicans.

Now, there are signs of another shift in party allegiance.

According to an Associated Press poll, Obama’s approval rating among women has jumped since December, from 43 percent to 53 percent. The poll suggests this gain was fueled by the current focus on contraception in the political world.

“Right now [the Republican Party] is in the process of losing young women’s votes for an entire generation,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization of Women. “It’s troubling.”

According to O’Neill, the Republican Party has created a sudden “culture war” over the rights of women and their place in society.

While officials of the Republican National Committee did not respond to requests for comment, the president of the National Federation of Republican Women said there is “absolutely no gender gap” within the Republican Party.

“From RNC staff members to Republican volunteers, there is always an even mix of females and males,” said Rae Chornenky, president of the NFRW.

The 2012 Republicans primaries are a good indication of this, she added.

“Republican women are very involved and connected with the different candidates and their staffs,” said Chornenky. “When we do get a candidate, I think women’s voices are going to be heard—heard more and heard more strongly.”

War on Women

O’Neill, however, called the GOP primaries “a referendum on the war against women. Santorum is one of the most enthusiastic warriors against women and that is a huge part of his policy and platform.”

After the Pentagon announced that women would formally be permitted to have jobs closer to the front lines of combat, Santorum expressed skepticism. The Republican presidential candidate said women’s “emotions” could create a “compromising situation.”

“Rick Santorum does not know what he is talking about,” said O’Neill. “Combat today is not arranged in front lines and back lines. Women who serve in Iraq or Afghanistan are every bit in harms way as the men who serve alongside them. But the difference is they are not entitled to combat pay.”

According to Service Women’s Action Network, more than 140 women in the American military have lost their lives during operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon’s new rule opens up specialty jobs previously limited to men. Women can now be tank mechanics, radio operators, medics and fire detection specialists.

Although many women already have these jobs, they now will get corresponding salaries.

“Currently, our military policies are creating what we call ‘a brass ceiling’,” said Katy Otto, communications director for SWAN. “Women are performing a lot of the same jobs as men that carry similar risks, but they are not being allowed to have the appropriate titles and rankings. The Pentagon’s decision is just one small step forward to solving this problem.”

According to Otto, the subject of women in combat will “definitely” be a topic of discussion in the upcoming general election.

“Santorum has already commented on this subject. And although his comments were kind of ridiculous, he brought attention to it,” Otto said.

In an interview on NBC’s Today show, Santorum clarified his comments about women in the military.

“The issue is—and certainly one that has been talked about for a long, long time—is how men would react to seeing women in harm’s way, or potentially being injured or in a vulnerable position and not being concerned about accomplishing the mission,” Santorum said.

Women advocacy groups argue that Santorum’s backpedaling illustrates the growing problem within the Republican Party—an inability to connect with women voters.

According to O’Neill, this is because the Republican Party is a “male-dominated” establishment.

“One of the reasons the Republican Party is losing its way is because it has pushed out its women,” she said. “It would be a better, stronger party if it brings more women into its leadership.”