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Historically, Republican women, such as First Lady Betty Ford, shown campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, have held progressive views on women's health issues.
Historically, Republican women, such as First Lady Betty Ford, shown campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment, have held progressive views on women's health issues.

North Country Republican leaders worried about "war on women"

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The Obama administration set off a firestorm when it released rules requiring employer-provided health insurance to cover the cost of contraceptives. Leaders in the Catholic Church said the policy violates their right to religious freedom.

Meanwhile, states around the country are considering hundreds of bills addressing women's health care: everything from forcing women to carry dead fetuses to term, to forcing women who seek abortions to go through invasive ultrasounds, to cutting funding for health clinics. Many women say these bills violate their right to to make their own health care decisions, and will limit access to quality health care..

The New York State legislature is considering a bill called the Reproductive Health Act. It codifies a woman's right to contraception and abortion. But even so, some women see a trend, and they're worried.

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Republican Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward started a firestorm of her own last month, when she said she might vote for Barack Obama for president, instead of a Republican.  Sayward says it just came out during an interview…

"I think it was out of frustration, really.  You watch what’s going on with the candidates and the kinds of things they're talking about would set women back decades." 

Sayward says U.S. politics have an “us-versus-them” mentality and the “them” these days is women.  She doesn’t like it.

"I have daughters, I have granddaughters, I want to make sure the women and particularly in our state have access to good health care. And reproductive health care is important."

Sayward is among the sponsors of a bill in New York legislature called the Reproductive Health Act. 

Assembly woman Janet Duprey is another Republican representing the north country.  She also supports it…

"I cannot in my wildest imagination figure out why a woman would choose to have an abortion. And yet, when somebody makes that determination, and she knows that's right for her, I don't think anybody  has the right to tell her it's not."

Duprey says she came of age during the time of back alley abortions…

"I graduated high school in 1963. We can never return to that era. We absolutely cannot. And younger people have said to me, 'well that was all exaggerated.'  No it was not exaggerated. It was a horrible time for young women who found themselves pregnant…some by rape, some by having consensual sex, but determined for whatever reason they could not have those children."

Duprey says she wants every child born to be wanted, and cared for.

New York’s Catholic leaders say it’s their job to speak up for the baby in the womb.

In March, as state lawmakers started debating the budget, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan led Catholics from around the state to Albany. They met with Governor Andrew Cuomo, and lobbied against the reproductive health act. 

Afterward, Dolan told reporters the Church is concerned whenever it sees laws to strengthen abortion rights.  

"We’re particularly worried about this one for a number of reasons. Number one, it seems to be predicated on notion that abortion rights are being restrained, and we kind of wish it were, and it’s not. If anything, it’s being expanded."

"In no measure is the Reproductive Health Act an expansion of women’s reproductive health rights." 

Addie Russell is a democratic Assemblywoman from Theresa, and a co-sponsor of the Act.

"I think this act would merely adopt what has been decided at the Supreme Court level, so there is no push to move the ball forward, so to speak."

And in some circles, the reproductive health act hasn’t gotten much attention. It’s still working its way through committees in the Assembly and Senate.

Republican State Senator Joe Griffo of Rome says he’s not familiar it.

"I’m not aware that the bill has even been introduced in the Senate. I have not had a chance to examine the bill or review the bill."

Senator Liz Krueger, a democrat from New York City, recently complained to reporters about the treatment of women’s issues in the Senate. Democrats tried to introduce resolutions calling on Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and to site a new national Women’s Museum. But Krueger says Republican leaders refused to discuss either of them.

"This is now a continuing pattern of Senate Republicans refusing to allow resolutions that involve issues for women to be brought to the floor."

Republican Griffo says state lawmakers should be focused on things they can actually accomplish.

"Rather than calling on the federal government to do something, I mean that's a political posture, that's not real public policy. Policy is what can we do, and what are we doing. And at this point in time, I think our priority is economic issues, to try to get people back to work."

Republicans in the House of Representatives are also trying to turn the conversation away from reproductive issues. They’ve slowed their efforts to overturn the administration’s mandate on contraceptive coverage.  According to the New York Times, they fear alienating women during an election year.

But as the Republican primary continues, women’s reproductive issues continue to be a litmus test for support among some conservatives.

Republican Assemblywoman Duprey says it doesn’t make sense.

"The conservative party, their basic principle is keep government out of people’s lives, there should be less government, more personal freedoms. There is nothing more invasive in people's lives than their health care, particularly women's reproductive rights, and how they want they want to control it. I just don’t get it. I can’t connect those dots."

Miriam Reuman is an expert on women’s sexual history in the U.S. at the University of Rhode Island. She says in the current conversation about women’s reproductive care, and who should pay for it, two powerful strains of conservatism have come together.

"One side being fiscal conservatism and the other being social conservatism and the religious right. Now we have a perfect storm. In which these two groups, who have often struggled uneasily over what it means to be a conservative, now have this perfect moment and perfect issue for them to agree upon perhaps."

These days women hold the majority of the north country’s seats in the state legislature. Assemblywoman Theresa Sayward started to break those barriers as a farm wife.

Her husband was too tired to go to a local meeting, so she went instead.

"So I go to the meeting, and I walk in the farm house, and the men looked at me and said, 'the women are in the kitchen,' and I said, 'Well, I didn’t come to go to the kitchen, I came to go to the meeting.' And back then when things were evolving for women, the men looked at me and said 'okay.' It just never occurred to them. And 3 months later there were no women in the kitchen, because it had never occurred to them."

Having lived through that watershed time, Sayward doesn’t like what she’s seeing now. She says there are extremists on both sides on the political aisle in New York, and she doesn’t want women’s access to quality health care caught in the middle.

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