“THIS is what a feminist looks like.”
President Obama made history again on June 14, 2016, when he became the first sitting president to call himself a feminist. He uttered those inspiring words at the first-ever United State of Women Summit, which brought powerful women to Washington, D.C. to discuss the inequality we all continue to face in the U.S.
Now, I don’t believe in ripping someone down when they claim to be a feminist, because everyone experiences a learning curve when they first become activists. But, now late in his second term, President Obama is in a position to eliminate several pieces of legislation that hurt women by restricting their healthcare access: the Helms and Hyde Amendments.
In June 2016, Congress voted to require women to register for the draft. This was the next logical step, after allowing women to serve in combat roles. For a lot of feminists, the issue isn’t that women must register for selective service, but that we still have a draft system at all, given that we haven’t used it since 1973. There’s also the fact that U.S. involvement in foreign wars and conflicts creates the terrorist organizations we wind up bombing, leading to an endless cycle of vengeance, death, and aftermath.
And then there’s the problem of women’s health. Young women in the U.S. will now be required to register for the draft at a time when they must jump through legislative hoops in order to control their bodies, lives, and families.
Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment prevents low-income people with vaginas from receiving Medicaid coverage for abortion, even in states where private insurance plans cover the procedure. It’s a discriminatory piece of legislation, written by a vindictive lawmaker who sought to hinder all women, but knowingly targeted the poor and people of color.
These discriminatory abortion restrictions also apply to women with military health plans. When President Obama signed a military spending bill in 2013, Hyde was used as a model for revamping Tricare’s abortion coverage. Since 1988, military health insurance had covered abortions, but only in cases where the mother’s life was endangered. The 2013 revision eased restrictions to allow rape victims to receive abortion coverage, but soldiers with vaginas must still pay out of pocket for terminations that are deemed “elective.”
This is the biggest problem with requiring women to register for selective service: that all women will be expected to put their lives on the line, even as those who do are barred from receiving the full range of reproductive health coverage. When President Obama calls himself a feminist, I wonder if he’s aware of this problem, and how he feels about it. And, in that same vein, I wonder how he feels about the Helms Amendment.
Helms predates Hyde by several years, and strictly limits the use of foreign aid to pay for abortions, saying:
No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.
Now, reasonable people would assume that terminations in the case of rape, incest, injury, and mortality wouldn’t be considered “abortion as a method of family planning,” because we’ve pretty much come to agree, as a society, that these are situations in which abortion should always be legal.
But Helms’ language is so broad that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) routinely uses it to block all abortion care for women our country helps abroad, including those who have been raped. This blanket ban extends to NGOs that receive federal funding. Even the most compassionate and progressive organizations aren’t willing to risk everything in order to provide abortion care to the women they help.
This is the tragic legacy of Helms: that when the U.S. helps to rescue women and girls who have been kidnapped and raped, those who are pregnant must often carry to term — even if it will end their lives to do so.
Once again, I’m not often inclined to spit on a good thing because of one flaw. However, President Obama cannot call himself a feminist and continue to allow his country’s anti-woman legislation to endanger the lives of soldiers, refugees, and other women and girls across the globe.
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has already called for an end to Hyde. In October 2015, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and 27 others penned an open letter that urged the POTUS to strike Helms from U.S. law.
Women’s rights activists have been asking the president to end restrictions on federal funding for abortions for the better part of a decade. It is within his power to end Hyde and Helms, and, quite frankly, he has no reason to leave them in place when he departs from the White House. If President Obama is really a feminist, now’s his chance to show it.