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What the shutdown meant for women

We heard about parks, monuments, food safety, and veterans’ needs. So what about the needs of caretakers, breadwinners, mothers, daughters, and elders?

Elayne Clift writes about women, health, and politics.

Saxtons River

She’s a young mother, pregnant with her second child, who relies on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) for food and medicine when her son gets sick.

When the federal government shut down, she became one of almost nine million mothers — and their children younger than 5 — who lost their vouchers for food, baby formula, and breastfeeding support.

She’s a victim of domestic violence who had nowhere to go for help because funds usually available under the Violence Against Women Act had been reduced or eliminated.

Or she’s Michele Langbehn, a beautiful young mother who told her story on CNN and then started a petition to try to save her life.

She has endured multiple surgeries, nine months of chemo, and two cycles of radiation to stop the spread of her rare form of cancer. She was under consideration for a clinical trial of a new medication that just might save her life when the shutdown hit the National Institutes of Health.

“I’m furious that Congress has chosen to shut down the government and leave so many of us behind,” Langbehn’s petition said. “This is not just about the debt ceiling or national parks. For me, the shutdown means that Congress is denying me potentially life-saving treatment. I speak for everyone battling cancer when I say we don’t have time to wait.”

Why, I wonder, weren’t the critical needs of women like these – caretakers, breadwinners, mothers, daughters, elders in need — been given the priority of parks, monuments, food safety, and deserving veterans when it came to policy and publicity during the shutdown?

* * *

All over this country, women who struggle to make ends meet in the best of times faced disastrous challenges, setbacks, and fears for the future of their families.

Most of these women remained invisible, certainly in the eyes of privileged, uninformed, insensitive, politically driven policymakers under that big white dome in Washington.

But what do they know of moms who have to miss work and lose pay because Head Start programs or adult-day-care facilities for their aging parents have been closed?

How many of them have looked at the face of a sick child and had to choose between food and medicine?

Who among them has a child who wouldn’t be able to attend college because financial aid has been cut?

As one blogger noted on during the crisis, “Republicans are all about how babies are so great that women shouldn’t be able to say no to having one. [...] However, they clearly don’t love babies enough to make sure the alive ones are fed.”

That observation reminded me of what feminists pointed out back in the 1990s: Mean-spirited conservatives in Congress are all for supporting children from conception to birth.

After that, it’s up to you, Mom.

* * *

And it wasn’t just about mothers. It was about young women in college — and there are more of them than men — whose financial aid was being cut. Would those women be forced to skimp on contraception, or meals, or other medications, to make ends meet?

It was about elderly women who can’t afford to heat their homes in winter if they depend on help from the Low Income Home Energy Program.

It was about single women whose economic stability was seriously challenged when they were furloughed, and about their health and well-being when they had to forego health care or preventive services like birth control, HPV testing, and pap smears for lack of funds or because of the moral objections of Neanderthals who hold them hostage.

The Affordable Care Act — can we please stop calling it Obamacare? — has already meant that millions of women across the country have been able to access preventive health care without a co-pay, and more will benefit when the law takes full effect.

It has already been measurably cost-saving: The Guttamacher Institute, for example, has shown that for every dollar invested in birth-control services, nearly $6 is saved in the long term.

* * *

As Dr. Atul Gawande, who writes for The New Yorker, and others have made clear, the Affordable Care Act has allowed more than three million people younger than age 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance policy. Seventeen million children with pre-existing medical conditions cannot be excluded from insurance eligibility or forced to pay inflated rates. And more than 20 million uninsured people will gain protection they didn’t have.

A “new norm is coming,” Gawande says — a norm that underscores that Americans are “entitled to basic protection.”

Who but the meanest and most politically driven could be against that?

The answer is a group of nasty, small-minded, heartless Tea Party members who will soon go down in flames.

It gives me no pause to watch that happen.

But taking women like Michele Langbehn, and so many others, down with them positively turns my stomach.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #227 (Wednesday, October 30, 2013). This story appeared on page C1.

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