Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told abortion rights supporters at a Chicago fundraiser Wednesday that Republicans want to roll back women's health gains 50 years.
In a strongly worded speech, Sebelius said Republicans are not only working to repeal President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, but also want to take away benefits in Medicare, cut back Medicaid and eliminate health services provided by Planned Parenthood.
"In other words, they don't just want to go after the last 18 months, they want to roll back the last 50 years in progress women have made in comprehensive health care in America," Sebelius said.
"We've come a long way in women's health over the last few decades, but we are in a war," Sebelius said at a NARAL Pro-Choice America luncheon attended by about 300 people, who gave some of their loudest applause at her mention of the Obama administration's support for requiring insurance plans to cover birth control without copays.
Sebelius said women have suffered discrimination by insurance companies that considered "Viagra an essential medication and birth control a lifestyle choice."
Her message resonated with some at the event who acknowledged doubts about Obama's leadership on a variety of liberal issues.
"I'm a little disappointed with his force, his forcefulness, pretty much across the board," Chicagoan Bamboo Solzman said of Obama. Sebelius' remarks at Wednesday's event solidified Solzman's support of Obama's re-election, she said. "He was forward enough to choose her, so that does help," Solzman said.
Law student Anthony Todd said he was struck by Sebelius' detailed account of how the Affordable Care Act affects women.
"Just because Obama isn't making as much noise as progressives would like him to, it doesn't mean the important policy changes she discussed that affect real women's real lives aren't happening," Todd said. "That's encouraging, as a Democrat, to remember that something's happening."
NARAL spokesman Ted Miller said Sebelius' appearance comes at a particularly tough time for women's reproductive rights. This year, states have enacted 62 laws the group identifies as "anti-choice," the second highest number in the past 15 years, Miller said, and a House Republican proposed budget would eliminate family planning programs.
House Republicans have described the proposed spending cuts as an attack at government waste in a time of fiscal crisis.
Outside the event, a dozen anti-abortion protesters silently held large grisly signs depicting aborted fetuses, and Sebelius mentioned the demonstration in her speech.
"I know that some people were a bit appalled at walking through the demonstrators as you came to this lunch," Sebelius said. "It is a discomfort when you're coming to lunch, but think about the women who are trying to tap into the health services they desperately need who have to go through that kind of gantlet in order to access all-too-infrequent services."
Sebelius said the national health law increases access to birth control, which she calls the single biggest step to reducing the number of abortions.
"Forty percent of unplanned pregnancies end in those women seeking abortions," Sebelius said, then grew sarcastic: "Wouldn't you think that people who want to reduce the number of abortions would champion the cause of widely available, widely affordable contraceptive services? Not so much."
Sebelius ended her speech pledging the administration's support for women's health.
"If we can fight through the misinformation and get Americans the facts, I'm confident we can keep moving forward to a day when all American woman have access to the comprehensive health services they need and the right to make their own choices about their bodies and their own futures," Sebelius said, promising that the Obama administration "will be fighting with you every step along the way."