Democrats have a new rallying cry when it comes to the Obama administration’s hotly contested contraception rule. Thursday, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) gazed at an all male panel at yesterday’s House Oversight hearing and asked, “Where are the women?” The question is being repeated by Democrats and women’s rights groups as they attempt to shape the narrative of the contraception issue.
The Democrats’ new mantra really began before the hearing convened in a fight over witnesses. Democrats on the Committee had pushed for a specific woman to testify in the hearing. This was Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University Law School, who was asked to discuss contraception as a health care issue. Republicans rejected her as a witness because they didn’t want access to contraception to be raised as an issue, saying she was an “inappropriate” witness on the subject they wanted to talk about: religious freedom. Instead, the GOP invited another Minority witness, Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. But Lynn didn’t testify because the Minority had told him they wanted their one allowed witness to be the woman. When the panel convened Thursday morning, Democrats cried foul over a lack of women on the panel. Republicans’ refusal to allow Fluke to testify provided an opening for Democrats to make it a big deal.
Democrats kept Republicans’ feet to the fire throughout the entire hearing, pushing the idea that women were necessary for a hearing about women’s health. Republicans — and their witnesses — hit back that this had nothing to do with women and contraception. “This is an issue of religious liberty and only religious liberty,” one witness said. Republicans on the Committee also countered that there were two women on the second panel at the hearing. But it was too late. This picture of an all-male panel was already making the rounds on the Internet. And as Rep. Chris Murphy (D-CT) responded: “When you’re talking about an issue relevant to women’s health care, to have two of nine witnesses be females I think is offensive to the dialogue that’s happening in the public.”
Speaking to the press during the hearing, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi picked up the new mantra, saying said that Maloney’s point was “a good question for the whole debate.”
“Imagine having a panel on women’s health, and they don’t have any women on the panel,” Pelosi continued, noting that the Democrats had put forward a woman witness that the Majority had declined to invite. That fact is “symbolic” of the whole debate, she said.
Women’s groups began releasing statements and sending out emails making the same argument. “Where are the women? How can Congress hold a hearing about birth control and not let any women speak?” EMILY’s List sent out an email with Maloney’s quote. NARAL Pro-Choice America sent out an email before the hearing began echoing this narrative: “Just when you think the U.S. House of Representatives could not be more ridiculous, here comes a hearing on contraception to which women are not allowed to talk about the importance of birth control.” Finally, the ACLU piled on:
“The committee’s majority seems to be working on behalf of religious opponents to help suppress women’s voices in a debate that is largely about women’s health,” said Sarah Lipton-Lubet, ACLU policy counsel. “It is clearer now than it has ever been that this is not about religious freedom. It is an attempt to roll back access to contraception. Our government’s policies regarding the health of women should reflect the concerns of women, regardless of where they work.
Democrats’ goal is to put Republicans on the back foot by making them come across as disinterested, even hostile, to women’s well-being. Rep. Chris Murphy suggested at the hearing that they convene a second hearing to address the issue of access to contraception. To which the ranking Majority member, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) said, “A point of clarification, there are two females here now, and I just want to make sure the record reflects such.”
Democrats know that the fight over contraception coverage will tip in their favor if they make it about women and contraception coverage, as several polls on the rule and on the President suggest. But when the question is framed as one of religious liberty, Republicans get the upper hand. A CNN poll Thursday showed more Americans opposed to the coverage requirement when asked about their approval “Based on what you have read or heard.” If anyone tuned in to the news Thursday, the Democrats made sure they heard, “Where are the women?” And they intend to keep it that way.
Pema Levy is a News Writer at TPM covering the 2012 election. Before coming to TPM, Pema was an assistant editor at The American Prospect where she wrote about politics and the economy.