Obama’s Cave-in on Emergency Contraception

You’ve probably seen the news today that the Obama administration has (again) caved-in to the right (including, of course, the churches) by overruling its own Food and Drug Administration’s decision that emergency contraceptives be available over-the-counter to anyone, including teenagers 16 years old and younger.  Thus, age restrictions will still be in place.  Here is what NOW has to say about it, including what it might mean to contraceptive coverage to women under the Affordable Care Act:

Emergency Contraception Betrayal:
Does President Obama Really Oppose Family Planning?

December 7, 2011

In a stunning betrayal of women, the Obama administration has sided with radical right politics in rejecting the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision to remove an age restriction on emergency contraception.

The experts on the FDA advisory committee resoundingly supported all available scientific and medical evidence, declaring Plan B One-Step to be safe and effective for all women over the counter, regardless of age.

Today, Plan B One-Step is available without prescription to women ages 17 and above. However, because of the age restriction, it is held behind the counter in pharmacies, and women are required to produce either proof of age or a doctor’s prescription to access the drug.

Two years ago, a district court found that the FDA’s earlier decision to limit access on the basis of age was motivated exclusively by politics. The court ordered the FDA to reconsider, and the FDA ultimately complied, recently deciding to make Plan B One-Step available over the counter to all women regardless of age.

It is an unusual and infuriating move for the Obama administration to overrule that decision, especially at a time when rumors are flying that the president is on the brink of caving in to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by expanding religiously affiliated employers’ ability to deny contraceptive coverage to women under the Affordable Care Act.

NOW calls on the president to stop playing politics with the lives of women and girls. During the Bush years, women’s reproductive health was under constant attack. We don’t need more of the same from the Obama administration.

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Obama’s Reversal on Defending the Defense of Marriage Act

It looks to me that President Obama has decided that it is now “safer” to be a true advocate for same-sex marriage.  How else to explain his flip-flop of now telling the Department of Justice to not defend the Defense of Marriage Act when it was only one month ago when the Department had vowed to continue going to court to defend the Act.

The reasons given by Attorney General Eric Holder for the flip-flop are ludicrous.  Supposedly, according to Holder, he and President Obama have changed their minds because they determined after an extensive review that the law’s key section is unconstitutional.  The review was supposedly completed recently in response to two pending cases filed in November in Connecticut and New York.  Since the Department has been defending cases against the Defense of Marriage Act for two years, if one is to believe Holder’s stated reasons, the Department has failed miserably in its legal obligations for the past two years.  In fact, some opponents of same-sex marriage feel that the Department has been “deliberately throwing the case.”  If it intentionally has been “throwing the case,” the attorneys could be guilty of ethics violations.  Hopefully, that is not what has been going on; it is one thing for the Department of Justice to decline to defend an act, it is quite another to intentionally do less than its best.

Of course, Obama has still not committed all the way for support of same-sex marriage.  He is still said to be “grappling” with the issue.  How high do the polls showing support for same-sex marriage have to go before he will stop “grappling” with the issue?  Oh well, you can’t have everything.  Wouldn’t it be nice for Obama to finally take a true stand on this issue (and other issues) where he continues to equivocate?

Obama Makes 15 Recess Appointments

Thankfully, President Obama is finally finding the strength of mind to do what he thinks is right rather than trying to appease others with whom he clearly disagrees.  This past week he “snubbed” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu when he would not allow a photo op and made Netanyahu stew when Obama walked out of a meeting when Netanyahu would not agree to any changes on the Israeli settlement plans in East Jerusalem.  (David Axelrod said today that there was no intention to “snub” Netanyahu.)

And yesterday Obama used his power to make 15 recess appointments, including the very important one of appointing union lawyer Craig Becker to the currently dysfunctional National Labor Relations Board.  He did this even though all 41 Republican senators wrote to him on Thursday urging him not to appoint Becker during the recess.

Contrary to the protestations of the Republicans, recess appointments are common.  Republican and Democratic presidents have made many recess appointments in the past to overcome delays of the opposing party.  George W. Bush made more than 170 recess appointments in his two terms and Bill Clinton made nearly 140.

Obama said, “I simply cannot allow partisan politics to stand in the way of the basic functioning of government.”  And Axelrod said on CNN that “[t]he Republican Party has taken a position where they’re going to try and slow and block progress on all fronts, whether it’s legislation or appointments. . . .  We have 77 appointees who have not gotten the [Senate] vote because they have been held up by the Republican Party.  Some of them are in very sensitive positions — Treasury, Homeland Security, and boards like the Labor Relations Board … where there are a huge number of vacancies.”  Axelrod also noted that the Bush administration had fewer appointees awaiting Senate confirmation at the same point of his first term.

In February, Obama told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that he would make recess appointments if Republicans didn’t allow his nominations to go through.  Because of that, the Senate cleared 27 nominees.  But shortly after that, Obama also said that he would not use his recess-appointment power for the other stalled nominees when the Senate went into recess.

It’s great that Obama changed his mind about the recess appointments.  At least for now, he appears to be starting to believe that he should use the power he has.  Let’s hope he keeps it up.

Reflections on Health Care Reform

Late last night, the year-long health care debate (that lately has devolved into a circus), has, for all intents & purposes, come to a close. On Tuesday, Obama is expected to sign the bill into law. Of course, there are still potential roadblocks in the way: the Senate must approve reconciliations between its previously passed bill and the bill the House passed last night.

A list of the changed provisions can be found here.

Now, onto Stupak/Nelson. Once again, women’s issues are used as the main bargaining chip (and by men, of course). I want to get past the rhetoric about “baby killers” and this measure being the “end of choice” and think about what this really means. It’s true that those who want abortion coverage in the insurance plans may have a chance to opt for that. But here’s the problem: first of all, no one believes in advance that they’ll need an abortion. Facing that choice can be a daunting one in general, and now these measures seek to impose further financial difficulties on women. Secondly, because of the difficulties involved in obtaining abortion coverage, I believe this provision will have significant impacts in widening the gap between wealthy and poor women, since those who will have to rely on more subsidies will not be allowed to use that money to obtain an abortion. In my mind, this can only lead to more low SES women left without the choice that more affluent women can make.

Third, there’s been a lot of talk about private insurers dropping abortion coverage that they would have otherwise offered. This memo from the George Washington University’s Health Policy School outlines these concerns.  It’s a really good read, but here’s an excerpt:

Payments would have to be strictly segregated, subject to state insurance commissioner oversight and adherence to federal segregation requirements. For several reasons this provision could be expected to chill issuers’ willingness to sell products that cover a range of medically indicated abortions. They would have to comply with complex audit standards and more importantly, they would have to collect an additional fee from each member of their plan, a step that could be expected to encounter broad resistance. (It is also not clear what the consequences would be for plan members who do not make the payment or whether non-payment would place them in arrears). The more logical response would be not to sell products that cover abortion services.

And finally, this debate over abortion coverage further stigmatizes the medical procedure that statistics show 1/3 women will have in her lifetime.

Finally, I want to end with a more personal reflection from my own experiences with Medicaid. I spent over 2 years working with and representing individuals on Medicaid, helping them obtain their benefits in the face of improper termination, impossibly confusing forms and rules, surgeries and illnesses, apathy and discrimination. I knew many of them well. These people were not lazy or stupid, they were sick, and scared and poor.  They wanted a right to get the same HIV treatment as wealthier people, they wanted the same obstetric care, and they wanted an equal chance to fight their breast cancer– through all rounds of chemo, not just one. So to those who spout off inflammatory rhetoric about welfare queens and bums, I’m telling you that you’re using harmful and frequently racist synecdoches that you don’t even understand.

But I also know that though Medicaid’s existence is a necessary, crucial one– there are significant problems with its implementation and effectiveness for many Americans. Forms and rules are perplexing to the point where many individuals lose their coverage because of a gap in understanding. I spent time working with government staff who have little or no incentives in their jobs to provide quality care for Medicaid recipients. There are loop holes that no one cares to close, and there are tragic failures in the system that have real health consequences for real people, and there are countless people that fall through the cracks. So I can relate to the sentiment that increased government control over health care may not be positive.

Time will tell, and I’m hopeful but still skeptical. I can only hope that the government puts as much effort into effective and intelligent implementation of their grand plans as they do to dreaming them up in the first place.

Only Delay, No Action, on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

As I wrote last week, even though he had a good sound bite about repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in his State of the Union address, it was a weak promise that merely said sometime in the next year he will try to do something about it.  Based on what has happened since the address, it is clear that no repeal will happen at least within the next year.

Tomorrow, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are expected to announce that they will have a “special investigation into how the ban can be repealed without hurting the morale or readiness of the troops.”  The investigation is expected to take “the better part of this year to complete.”  Does anyone really think that the investigation will come out in favor of repeal?  Of course it won’t.  But the Obama administration has already indicated that repeal should have the backing of the military and should be initiated in Congress.  And, therefore, all that having an investigation does is to delay any work by the Obama administration on finding some way to get a repeal without the backing of the military.  He could do that right now without having a delay of at least a year.

There is also delay because Democrats in Congress are unlikely to want to do anything about the issue until after this fall’s midterm elections.

And, so, what Obama should do is to find some way to repeal the policy without all of this delay.  As I wrote, Congress certainly does have to take action in order for a permanent repeal to take place.  But Obama can–on his own without Congress– effectively stop the policy by defunding individual investigations under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  If he truly wants to repeal the policy, rather than just issuing empty promises, that is what he should be doing rather than setting up interminable delay.

And just so we don’t forget.  Between 1997 and 2008, more than 10,500 service members were discharged for violating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Why Didn’t Obama Do Anything About “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in his First Year?

I don’t know how much more disappointed I can be in President Obama.  His continued move to the center, as shown again in the State of the Union address, is more and more depressing.  In fact, the move is not just to the center, but to the right of center.  He has caved in to the Republicans again and again and has forgotten many of the more liberal pledges he made during the campaign.  I don’t deny that this might help his polls in the short run, but I don’t see it helping him in the long run.  (Obviously, even though much of what he said last night is what the Republicans want, they will find nothing good to say about him and will continue to obstruct everything he tries to do.)

The focus on jobs was good to hear, but it remains to be seen what he will do about it, especially given his completely nonsensical and contradictory talk about a spending freeze.

But what I wanted to talk about here is what he said about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”  Yes, it is great that he said that “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are,” adding that “It’s the right thing to do.”  But that’s really not much of a promise, is it?  All it says is that sometime in the next year he will try to do something about it.  And who can think that, given the numerous times he has failed to get Congress to do what he wants, Congress will go along with him on this.  In the House, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.) has 187 sponsors on a bill that would abolish Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  But that means that he still needs 31 more votes.  Given the Republican’s complete obstructionism (all of them seem already to be lining up against repeal, as well as some of the high-ranking military officers), and the previous failures to keep all Democrats in line, why should we expect any good result in the House.  And, in the Senate, of course all bets are off.  (The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to have a hearing on the matter next month.)

There are two things that really bother me about Obama’s statement.  The first is that what he is talking about is a permanent repeal of the policy.    That needs to be done, of course, but he has other options that can be done immediately without Congress and would effectively stop the policy.  He could use his budgetary power to defund investigations under the Act.  That would effectively stop the policy until a permanent Congressional repeal is accomplished.

The second part that bothers me is that Obama made the same promise to repeal the Act during his campaign and at the start of his term–and did nothing.  It’s good to know that he still believes repeal is the “right thing to do,” but he could have, in the early part of his term, stopped the investigations and started working with Congress for permanent repeal.

First Known Trangendered Presidential Appointee

Amanda Simpson

President Obama has named Amanda Simpson a Technical Advisor at the Commerce Department, making her the first known (openly) trangender person appointed to a position in the federal government.

This is exciting– but of course the religious right is up in arms. Calling Obama’s decision a far-left, politically correct quota fulfillment, many key figures on the right have denounced Simpson’s appointment. The president of the conservative group Americans for Truth, for instance, stated:

“Clearly this is an administration that is pandering to the gay lobby.”

Of course, none of critics has actually considered that besides being a trans woman, Simpson has 30 years of experience in the defense & aerospace industry and recently was Deputy Director in Advanced Technology Development at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Simpson already anticipated the criticism. She said:

“I’m sure I will have to do and intend to do a far superior job than any other person. But I’m sure I will always be second-guessed.”

This is sadly true for many minority and historically disadvantaged groups– there is always an unspoken, underacknowledged pressure to outperform those of privilege. I wish Simpson the best in her new position.

(As a sidenote, I find it telling that Word Press’ spell checker recognizes neither ‘transgender’ nor ‘transgendered’).