The "War on Women" finger-pointing has intensified, with jabs flying in all directions.
Democrats have ramped up their focus on contraception and abortion issues ahead of the midterms, accusing Republicans of supporting legislation that restricts women's reproductive freedom, health, and safety. Republicans have, meanwhile, tried to shift blame in the opposite direction.
Such was the case Tuesday in a surprisingly subdued-for-the-topic hearing on a bill to protect women's access to abortion services. Republicans at the hearing sought to portray abortion access — and abortion itself — as an assault on women's rights.
"This legislation is a very real manifestation of a war on women," Sen. Ted Cruz said at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, "given the health consequences that unlimited abortion access has had on many woman."
The Women's Health Protection Act is a response to the wave of antiabortion legislation that has passed in states in the past several years. The bill would prevent states from implementing restrictions — such as admitting privileges at local hospitals for doctors, structural requirements for clinics, mandated waiting periods, and mandated ultrasounds — that do not significantly advance women's health and safety, and that make abortion services more difficult to access.
A set of these laws passed in Cruz's home state of Texas last summer has already closed about a third of the abortion clinics in the state. There were 40 operating in 2011; there are now 20 still open. After the last provision is implemented in September, all but six are expected to close.
Sponsors of the Women's Health Protection Act say these requirements are not medically necessary and set up different requirements for abortion services than for other medical procedures for one simple reason: politics.
Supporters of these mandates argue that they protect the health and safety of women, to prevent abuses such as sex-selection abortions, or another rogue abortion provider like Kermit Gosnell.
"This legislation being considered is extreme legislation," Cruz continued. "It is legislation designed to eliminate reasonable restrictions on abortion that states have put in place. It is designed to force a radical view from Democrats in the Senate: that abortions should be universally available, without limits, and paid for by the taxpayers."
Currently, the law allows states to set abortion regulations, as long as they do not impose an "undue burden" on women seeking the procedure. A number of state legislatures have taken a very loose interpretation of what constitutes an undue burden; now Republicans argue that Tuesday's bill is broad enough that it would eliminate any state regulation.
"The bill is really about just one thing: It seeks to strip away from elected lawmakers the ability to provide even the most minimal protections for unborn children, at any stage of their prenatal development," said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee. "While the proposal is so sweeping and extreme that it would be difficult to capture its full scope in any short title, calling the bill the 'Abortion Without Limits Until Birth Act' would be more in line with truth-in-advertising standards."
Tobias said she would favor overturning the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision altogether.
Proponents of Tuesday's bill argue this is exactly Republicans' intention: to make abortions inaccessible in practice, despite them being deemed legal by the Supreme Court.
"Congress is responsible for enforcing every American's fundamental rights guaranteed by our Constitution," said Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a cosponsor of the Senate bill, along with Sen. Richard Blumenthal. "Throughout history, when states have passed laws that make it harder — or even impossible — to exercise those rights, we have necessarily stepped in with federal protections."
Yet the proposed legislation is a rare federal action on an issue typically left to state legislatures.
Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn held up a photo of her grandson's ultrasound at the start of the hearing. "I could tell, three months before he was born, that he had my eyes and nose. For a grandmother, that's a really big deal," she said.
"We all want what's best for women. We differ on what that is, and we differ how to get there."