For many Americans, the Democratic Party has been a disappointment since it regained a majority in the House of Representatives and stronger numbers in the Senate in the Congressional elections of 2006. Democratic leadership has been weaker than hoped for in ending the war in Iraq; immigration reform and other initiatives have languished; and hearings about incompetence and corruption in the Bush Administration have been slow and inconclusive.
Still, Democratic legislators have taken notable steps to improve women's lives and health. In March this year, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Democrat from New York (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy, Democrat from Massachusetts (D-MA) introduced the Women's Equality Amendment, formerly known as the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. The amendment would grant equal constitutional rights to women - something many people believe already exists in the Constitution.
American women won the right to vote in 1920 - by one vote in one state legislature during the states' ratification process - but equality under the law for women has never been codified. In 1923, the ERA, authored by suffragist Alice Paul, was introduced in Congress. It finally passed the House in 1971 and the Senate a year later. Women worked tirelessly for ratification by three-fourths of the states, as required to pass a constitutional amendment, but by June 1982 they were three states short. Since then lawmakers have reintroduced the amendment in every Congress but it has failed to be a priority, especially during Republican administrations.
The need for an amendment is clear: American women still earn 77 cents to a man's dollar; they experience wider gender gaps in education, politics, business and health; they hold 98 per cent of low-paying "women's" jobs and fewer than 15 per cent of board seats at major corporations. Social Security puts working women at a disadvantage and grants no credit for years spent as a homemaker. Women pay higher rates for insurance. Three-quarters of the poor elderly in America are women.
Among legislators taking the lead in pushing the Women's Equality Amendment forward is Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). "In an age when we have women running the House of Representatives, anchoring network newscasts, and making strong bids for the White House in 2008, some may ask 'why do we need the Equal Rights Amendment?' I say to them, we need it now more than ever," he said. "We must put an end to inequity now."
Maloney has also introduced another important piece of legislation that would benefit women: The Access to Birth Control Act (ABC), which would restore contraceptive options to those who need them. The act guarantees a woman's ability to access birth control, including over-the-counter emergency contraception, and makes it illegal for a pharmacy or individual pharmacist to refuse to fill birth control prescriptions.
While 98 per cent of American women use birth control at some point in their lives, reports of pharmacists denying women their birth control have been well documented. Both single and married women have experienced obstructions. For example, pharmacists have refused to transfer birth control prescriptions to another more accommodating pharmacy, and some have refused to return the written prescription to the customer once she hands it over. This year, 18 states considered measures that would allow pharmacies or individual pharmacists to refuse to fill women's birth control prescriptions.
"An American woman can decide to put her life on the line for our country in Iraq," said Maloney, "but she can be prevented from making basic decisions about her own health here at home. Access to birth control is a women's health issue, a private matter and a constitutional right. No one - not pharmacists, politicians, or religious leaders - should be able to tamper with that right."
ABC requires a pharmacy to ensure that if a pharmacist has a personal objection to filling a legal prescription for a drug or device, the pharmacy will see that another pharmacist who doesn't have a personal objection fills the prescription without delay. The Act also ensures that if a prescription drug is not in stock but is routinely carried, the drug will be ordered without delay.
Another piece of legislation that has an impact on women's reproductive health is The Prevention First Act reintroduced in June by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). This proposed legislation is an omnibus family planning and women's health initiative that seeks to expand access to preventive reproductive health care services and education programmes, help reduce unintended pregnancies, prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and reduce the need for abortion. It combines eight bills into one complete legislative package that would increase access to contraception and family planning services.
In her speech introducing the legislation, Slaughter pointed out that today, one in three young American women becomes pregnant before age 20. Additionally, the US has one of the highest rates of STDs among industrialized nations, which costs American taxpayers more than $15 billion annually. "If we ask ourselves why Prevention First, and why now, the answer should be as clear as day. If we want to reduce the number of abortions and the spread of STDs in this country, we must empower women through education and access to contraception," she said.
The Planned Parenthood Federation of America points out that since 1996, the Congress has committed more than $1 billion in federal and state funds for abstinence-only education programmes that don't teach teens pregnancy prevention or how to prevent STDs, except through abstinence. Currently, programmes receiving federal funds are prohibited from discussing the benefits of contraceptives. (Every year more than four million American teens acquire STDs and one million become pregnant.)
A Planned Parenthood spokesperson said, "Teens need accurate, complete information to help them postpone sexual activity and protect themselves if they become sexually active. The [funds] currently allocated to these ill-conceived abstinence-only programmes must flow to programmes that tell the whole truth about contraceptives and provide comprehensive sex education - including a focus on abstinence - that protects teens from these life-altering and life- threatening consequences."
The Prevention First Act would help women obtain family planning services, end insurance discrimination against women, provide compassionate assistance for rape victims, improve awareness about emergency contraception, reduce teen pregnancy and fund realistic sex education programmes.
The three proposed legislations face an uphill battle at a time when many in the Congress are focused almost exclusively on the crisis in Iraq and on their own re- election bids. But with women being an active and large voting block, they would do well to "remember the ladies", as Abigail Adams famously reminded her president-elect husband in the 18th century. In the era of Hillary Clinton, ERA could make all the difference.