After a bruising campaign that focused heavily on President-elect Trump’s treatment of women, what will the new administration mean for women? Overall, Trump paid little attention to women’s issues during the campaign. His plans to “make America great again” focused on investing in infrastructure, renegotiating trade agreements, tightening immigration laws and repealing the Affordable Care Act.
But Trump has embraced two policy areas with major implications for women: abortion and help for working families. On reproductive rights he supports traditional Republican policies to restrict the availability of abortion. However, his promises regarding child care and family leave chart new territory for Republican candidates and policymakers. The small contingent of GOP women in Congress could play an important role in shaping Trump’s policies on women’s issues and selling his proposals to the public.
Roe v. Wade in the cross-hairs
Since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, Democrats and Republicans have battled over efforts to restrict abortion rights. In the early 1990s, some members of Congress crossed party lines on this issue. A small contingent of moderate Republicans, many of them women, took pro-choice positions on abortion, while a group of conservative Democrats, generally men, supported pro-life proposals. Today, however, almost all Democrats vote pro-choice, while virtually all Republicans vote pro-life.
Prior to running for president, Trump did not focus on abortion and even espoused pro-choice views. However, as the Republican presidential candidate he staked out pro-life positions, a shift that helped him gain support from social conservatives in the Republican base. Trump pledged to appoint a conservative Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade, and chose Indiana Governor Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence signed numerous abortion restrictions into law as governor and championed proposals to restrict abortion and defund Planned Parenthood while serving in Congress.
The Supreme Court has long been divided on abortion, narrowly upholding Roe v. Wade while allowing states to pass various restrictions on abortion access. Most recently, in a 5-3 decision issued after Justice Scalia’s death, the court overturned a Texas state law that required abortion clinics to meet the standards of surgical facilities and mandated that doctors who work at the clinics have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The court ruled that these restrictions would force so many clinics to shut down that women would not have meaningful to access abortion services.
Trump’s promise to appoint conservative pro-life jurists has far-reaching implications. Since swing vote Anthony Kennedy and liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Steven Breyer are all more than 70 years old, President Trump could reshape the balance of the court on abortion over his four years in office.
More immediately, Trump is likely to support legislative efforts to restrict access to abortion. In 2003, during the last period when Republicans held unified control of Congress and the White House, Congress passed and President George W. Bush signed the first national restriction on an abortion procedure, the Partial-Birth Abortion Act. Overturned by the Supreme Court in 2006, the law was later upheld when President Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, replaced Sandra Day O’Connor on the court.
Since Republicans won back control of the House in 2010 they have offered several proposals to restrict abortion, including a ban on abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation, known as the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, and numerous efforts to defund Planned Parenthood. The 20-week ban would directly challenge Roe v. Wade because it bans an abortion pre-viability. Under the Roe framework, which was modified by Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992 to allow regulations that do not place an “undue burden” on a woman’s ability to access abortion, the state cannot put a blanket ban on an abortion procedure before the fetus reaches viability.
As part of efforts to repeal or rewrite the Affordable Care Act, Trump could use executive action to eliminate regulations that require insurance companies to provide women with free access to contraception. House Speaker Paul Ryan has refused to predict whether Congress would retain the ACA’s requirement for insurers to cover contraceptives if it overhauls the law.
New help for working families?
Trump’s stances on child care and family leave could break new ground. With tax reform at the top of House Speaker Ryan’s agenda, Trump may be able to push through his proposals to make child care tax deductible, create dependent care savings accounts and incentivize employers to provide child care services. These measures are part of Trump’s agenda for his first hundred days in office.
Paid family leave will be a heavier lift in a Republican Congress. Originally conceived by his daughter Ivanka, Trump’s proposal would provide six weeks of paid leave to new mothers (but not to fathers), using federal unemployment insurance.
However, Republicans dislike imposing new mandates on business and expanding social welfare programs. In 1990 President George H.W. Bush vetoed the Family and Medical Leave Act, which required employers to provide up to three months of unpaid leave to care for new children or sick family members. Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, immediately signed the FMLA into law upon taking office in 1993.
As an alternative, Republicans have promoted policies that would allow employers to offer employees the option of receiving time off in lieu of overtime pay. The latest version of the bill, sponsored by Alabama Rep. Martha Roby, passed the House in 2013 but was never considered by the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Key roles for GOP women
My research demonstrates that women bring a distinctive perspective to the policymaking table representing the views of various groups of women, including mothers, working women, and women who are caregivers for children and elderly relatives. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway were able to persuade Trump to consider women’s issues during the campaign. So far, however, few women are being considered for top posts in Trump’s administration.
There will be only 26 Republican women in the 115th Congress, two fewer than in the 114th Congress, compared to 78 Democratic women. House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, the highest-ranking Republican woman in Congress, has worked to reach out to women voters and provide a female perspective in policy deliberations and could be a key Trump ally.
As Republicans move more aggressively to restrict abortion, I expect Democrats will accuse the party of waging a war on women, jeopardizing women’s health by taking away access to cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood, contraception and legal safe abortion procedures. Republicans will call on their female members to rebut these attacks.
Support from Republican women in Congress will be crucial for Trump. In 2015, when some GOP women objected to the fact that the proposed 20-week ban did not include a rape exemption, Republican leaders were forced to pull the bill from the floor to accommodate their concerns.
Conversely, abortion rights advocates will count on two key moderate Republicans in the Senate – Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski – to join Democratic efforts to block abortion legislation through filibusters and negotiations.
If Trump plays to the GOP base and focuses solely on abortion, he will further alienate minority and college-educated women who supported Hillary Clinton. However, if he promotes legislation to make child care more affordable for working families and provide paid leave for new parents, he could gain female supporters – particularly white college-educated women, who voted for Clinton over Trump by a 6-point margin. Increasing his support among these so-called soccer moms, who are traditional Republican voters, will be key to avoiding midterm losses for the party in 2018 and helping Trump position himself for reelection in 2020.
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