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WHY IT MATTERS: Abortion and birth control

The issue:

Whether women have access to abortion services and birth control is a long-standing and divisive issue in politics, and it has flared up from time to time in this campaign despite the candidates' reticence to dwell on such hot-button topics.

Where they stand:

President Barack Obama supports access to abortion. His health care law requires contraceptives to be available for free for women enrolled in workplace health plans.

Republican Mitt Romney favors limits on abortion, though he previously supported access to it. He says Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling establishing abortion rights, should be reversed, which would allow states to ban abortion. He would end federal aid to Planned Parenthood, a major provider of abortion and contraception, and has criticized mandatory coverage for contraception as a threat to religious liberty when it's applied to employers, such as Catholic hospitals, that disagree.

Why it matters:

There's been a lot of heated talk this year by Democrats contending that Republicans are waging a "war on women." That's hyperbole, retorts the GOP, but there are indeed stark differences between the two parties over these volatile issues.

Obama's Affordable Care Act, which Republicans opposed and want to repeal, vastly expands women's access to copay-free preventive health care, including contraception.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and many conservative Protestant evangelicals have denounced this contraception mandate, saying it violates religious freedom. The provision generally exempts houses of worship, but faith-affiliated employers would have to comply.

Obama's campaign has been running ads aimed at female voters, noting that Romney supports overturning Roe v. Wade and has assailed the contraception coverage requirement as a "war on religion."

Were Romney to be elected, his ability to push through tough federal abortion restrictions would probably be limited unless Republicans gained firm control of both chambers of Congress.

However, the next president - Obama or Romney - could have huge influence over the future of abortion policy if vacancies arise on the Supreme Court. For example, if two seats held by liberal justices were vacated and filled by Romney-nominated conservatives, prospects for a reversal of Roe v. Wade would increase.

"That's bigger than everything else combined, because of the long-term consequences," said anti-abortion rights activist Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life.

Another issue of contention is the federally financed family planning program known as Title X. Romney has proposed ending the program, as well as all other federal money for Planned Parenthood. Obama supporters say this could be harmful to the large numbers of women who rely on Planned Parenthood clinics for affordable birth control, breast-cancer screenings and other services.

Aside from the presidential and congressional elections, there's a lot riding on the results of state-level elections. Anti-abortion rights activists hope for further gains to accelerate a dramatic trend of the past decade: the enactment of scores of laws restricting access to abortion in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.

Among these measures are laws in several states prohibiting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, on the disputed premise that fetuses can feel pain at that stage; and a South Dakota law requiring doctors to warn women seeking abortions that they face increased risk of suicide by undergoing the procedure. In Mississippi, the lone abortion clinic is threatened with closure because of a new law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges.

In some parts of the country, abortion providers already are so scarce that women with an unintended pregnancy face a choice between reluctantly bearing a child or traveling hundreds of miles for an abortion. Election results could reduce access even further in some states.



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