The very partisan political strategy around men's reproductive health

By Stephanie Bouchard
08:00 AM
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Since the start of the year, a number of bills or amendments to bills targeting men’s reproductive health have been submitted to state legislatures by mostly female Democratic state legislators.

The legislation has been seen as alternatively serious and ridiculous but political experts concur that even if the legislation doesn’t stand a chance at becoming law, it is a viable political strategy to galvanize people – women in particular – to get out and vote.

“I don’t think that any of these pieces of legislation have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing,” said Jennifer Lawless, the director of American University’s Women and Politics Institute. “It’s a pretty interesting way to call attention to what could be a major problem for women. It’s kind of a sexy way to highlight the gender disparity here and what that means in terms of policy. As long as this issue stays in the news it gives Democrats and women legislators on the Democratic side in particular a rallying point.”

Legislators in at least seven states have introduced legislation that ranges from banning vasectomies, to requiring men to get counseling before being able to get a prescription for erectile dysfunction, to outlawing the spilling of semen in any location other than a woman’s vagina.

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While many of the legislators who have introduced men’s reproductive health legislation acknowledge that doing so is to prove a point rather than a serious attempt at passing such legislation, it is without a doubt a reaction to the onslaught of legislation targeting women’s reproductive health.

“I think that some of these bills have brought attention to the fact that women’s healthcare, and very specifically, women’s reproductive healthcare, has been micromanaged by state legislatures across this country,” said Bebe Anderson, the director of the U.S. Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a New York-based global human rights organization. “The government has seen fit to intrude into women’s ability to obtain reproductive healthcare services and some of these proposed bills and amendments shine a spotlight on the fact that it’s been women’s reproductive healthcare that’s been under attack.”

The Guttmacher Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit supporting sexual and reproductive health, reports that in 2011, states introduced a record number of reproductive health restrictions in 2011 with more than 1,100 provisions, up from 950 in 2010, introduced. Of the 135 enacted provisions, 92 in 24 states restricted access to abortion services.

Additionally, states’ family planning services faced deep budget cuts and repeated attempts have been made to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X family planning services for low-income women.

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In the first quarter of this year, the blitz has continued. Gaining particular attention across the country were a bill in Virginia requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion and the debate around the Obama administration’s contraception policy, with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee blocking the testimony on contraceptives by Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke and Fluke’s subsequent testimony to the House Democratic Steering Policy Committee and radio show host Rush Limbaugh’s personal attack on Fluke sparking nationwide controversy.

Whether legislation banning vasectomies and requiring men to view graphic videos detailing the risks of using erectile dysfunction drugs will build on the momentum generated by the recent women’s reproductive health controversies and galvanize women to vote for lawmakers supporting less restriction on women’s reproductive health is yet to be seen, said Dale Emmons, a Democratic political consultant from Kentucky and president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

“I will say this though, it would not be a stretch to see this being used as a tactic anywhere because all the stuff about healthcare and coverage is certainly timely and on the table for public debate right now,” he said.

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Emmons added that he sees the current firestorm around women’s reproductive health as a classic wedge strategy – a tactic used to create division – but Rae Lynne Chomenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, sees it as a ploy by the media.

“The media has tried to sidetrack the debate and discuss issues that really are not issues,” she said. “Nowhere does it say, or nothing that we can find, shows that Republicans are against contraception … These issues that keep showing up in the Bureau of Labor Statistics are almost frightening, and that’s the thing that’s going to get women out to vote.”

Political analysts agree with Chomenky to some extent: these men’s reproductive health bills and amendments to bills will bring attention to the issue of women’s reproductive health but ultimately are not likely to be what gets women to the polls.

“I would say that at the end of the day this is not what’s going to drive somebody to the polls,” Lawless said. “The economy is still what matters. But if you want to get out as many people as you possibly can and you want to ensure that they are angered by what some of the Republicans are saying, it’s a smart move.”

From Paul Goren’s perspective, the men’s reproductive health legislation is more about getting the attention of those who are already aware of the issues rather than getting the general public out to vote.

“In one sense, the strategy of highlighting these bills or taking positions on these bills isn’t really designed to generate mass support or huge show in support,” said Goren, associate professor of political science and director of graduate studies for the political psychology doctorate minor at the University of Minnesota. “It’s more of a targeted signal to the people who do pay attention: to the activists and the interest groups and the financial contributors that people who take positions on these issues are trying to signal to those constituencies – those active constituencies.”

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There could be ripple effects though, he acknowledged, that will mobilize a larger audience. “… (I)n this polarized political environment that we live in, election outcomes often come down to which party is better able to mobilize its base,” he added. “…(T)here could certainly be some spill over effects where the people who are looked up to as opinion leaders on politics, they may sort of spread out and spread the word among the circle of their friends that ‘yeah, this legislator has really taken the right position. You should show up on election day.’”

For more of our primaries coverage, visit Political Malpractice: Healthcare in the 2012 Election.
Follow HFN associate editor Stephanie Bouchard on Twitter @SBouchardHFN.