The XX Factor

Want Proof of the Outsized Value of Women in Public Office? Look to the Health Care Fight.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, and two of her female peers in the Senate saved Obamacare this week.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Anyone currently hosting a dance party on the grave of the Senate’s disastrous health care bill can thank Republican women for the freshly-packed soil. After Republican men failed to come up with a health care proposal their own party could abide, a desperate Sen. Mitch McConnell tried on Tuesday to simply repeal Obamacare as a half-measure that might help the legislators save face. Three Republican women—Sens. Susan Collins, Shelley Moore Capito, and Lisa Murkowski—refused to go along, derailing the plan.

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It was almost too perfect a conclusion (for now) to a health care debate, and I use the word debate loosely, typified by its exclusion of female legislators. The House’s Obamacare repeal-and-replace shenanigans were held hostage by a sizable caucus of white men whose group photo became one of the most powerful emetic objects in modern political history. When it passed, their Rose Garden celebration looked like a cookout at the world’s oldest, most boring fraternity. On the Senate side, 13 Republican men wrote their party’s bill in secret. They insisted they were not excluding women, and yet, none of the five Republican women in the Senate gained admission to the committee. Capito was invited to meet with the committee to discuss the needs of her opioid-afflicted state of West Virginia, but never became a member.

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Any of the health care bills these Republicans proposed would have meant sweeping rollbacks of women’s health care that would have reverberated for generations. They all would have cut off Planned Parenthood’s Medicaid reimbursements for at least a year, which the Congressional Budget Office predicted would cause thousands of unwanted pregnancies and unplanned births due to a steep reduction in contraception access. They would have let insurers charge women out of pocket for birth control, price women out of health care if they had a “pre-existing condition” like a previous Cesarean section, and potentially drop maternity care coverage. All versions of the Republicans’ plan could have completely dismantled private insurance coverage for abortion, keeping the procedure out of reach for most Americans.

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It’s likely that the three women who stopped Obamacare repeal in the Senate were swayed in part by their fellow party members’ disregard for women’s health care and the opinions of their female colleagues. Sens. Murkowski and Collins have both been vocal and steadfast supporters of Planned Parenthood and its continued federal funding through family-planning grants and Medicaid reimbursements. Murkowski has also expressed frustration with the secrecy with which Republican men carried out their legislative deliberations. Capito has identified as “pro-choice”; she has also voted to defund Planned Parenthood. But her reasoning for opposing Obamacare repeal—“I did not come to Washington to hurt people”—echoes the concerns of Collins and Murkowski, who recognized the advances Obamacare made in women’s health care and programs like Medicaid, which disproportionately help women.

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Watching three women stand against their own party to help Americans keep their health care makes a great argument for the importance of efforts to get women into political office. Numerous studies have shown that female legislators are more likely than men to champion progress in areas frequently dubbed “women’s issues,” such as child care, reproductive rights, equal pay, and women’s health. Women are also more likely to introduce legislation on education, health, and housing, though their proposals on these issues are more likely to get squashed than equivalent proposals put forward by men. A 2016 study of two decades of congressional information found that Republican women are more likely than their male counterparts to get members of the opposing party on board with their legislation. This effect is particularly pronounced on legislation related to—you guessed it!—education and health care. The defection of three Republican women from their party line on this health care issue fits comfortably in that pattern.

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One 2013 study found that the more women there are in a legislative body, the more those women talk about the specific needs of female constituents and raising concerns about so-called women’s issues. The study also indicated that, weirdly, having more women in a legislature also makes male legislators more likely to talk about women’s issues. And when a legislative body reaches a certain critical mass of women, everyone starts talking more about the needs of families, children, and low-income people, resulting in decisions that better benefit the poor.

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It’s no coincidence, in other words, that Murkowski and Collins, the two Republican senators who most reliably support Planned Parenthood and oppose attacks on women’s health care, are women. It’s no surprise, either, that they’ve become role models for recent efforts by Trump-opposing, centrist Republican women to get more of their kind into office. Their views are much more closely aligned than those of their male peers with public opinion, which has overwhelmingly opposed every version of Trumpcare and supported public funding for Planned Parenthood. Because there are two of them—maybe three if Capito continues to succumb to the captivating thrill of screwing up the terrible plans of arrogant men—they are enough of a bloc to draw strength from one another and have an outsized influence on policy. If three women in the Senate can save health care, imagine what 50 could do.

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