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Define Comprehensive: Reproductive Health Policies and the National Conversation on Sexual Harassment

Since early October, seventy-three male public figures have been accused of sexual harassment or assault. This growing list includes two prominent congressional staff members—Representative John Conyers of Michigan and Senator Al Franken of Minnesota—as well as senatorial candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.

With Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s backing of new legislation in response to national conversation, the congressional effort against sexual harassment now dominates the media as an example of bipartisanship. It all began, however, with three Democratic Congresswomen.

Last week, Representatives Jackie Speier of California and Ann McLane of New Hampshire along with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York stood in front of their colleagues and introduced the “ME TOO Congress Act,” a bill requiring all members of Congress to undergo sexual harassment training. The name of the bill takes its inspiration from the national media uproar campaign following the Harvey Weinstein allegations.

The presentation of the “ME TOO Congress Act” stands as a strong testament to a recent analysis that found that, although making up only roughly twenty percent of Congress, women have been the most outspoken on sexual misconduct this year, accounting for more than half of all dialogue on the subject.

The bill passed the House the same day it was introduced, and Speaker Ryan commented: “It’s an important first step as we deal with this problem. We’re taking issues of sexual harassment very seriously… We need to have a comprehensive review of all these things so that we can have a comprehensive response.”

But what will a comprehensive review entail for Ryan and other members of Congress? Mandating sexual harassment training only scratches the surface at reflecting on how Congress treats women.  

Some may look towards the newest bipartisan effort in the House. Members involved are filing legislation that would require disclosure of the names of any Congress members who use taxpayer funds to settle sexual harassment or sexual assault claims. The House Administration Committee held a hearing this past Thursday to discuss updating the Congressional Accountability Act and incorporating this legislation.  

Currently, harassment complaints are filed with the Office of Compliance that was created in 1995 to enforce workforce protections in Congress. The new legislation would mandate that if there is a settlement for sexual harassment, the Office of Compliance publish the name of the office where the incident occurred and the amount of the settlement on a public website. Additionally, complaints can be filed by congressional staff but not interns and fellows, a vulnerable group that new legislation also hopes to protect.

As of now, Office of Compliance reports go to Congress. But the reports do not name lawmaker offices, and often, cases involve non disclosure agreements. Such was the reality in the recent revelation just days ago that 84,000 dollars in taxpayer money was used to settle one congressman’s case. Since 2013, a secret congressional office has been using taxpayer funds to bury a sexual harassment claim against Representative Blake Farenthold of Texas.

Taxpayers would hope Ryan’s calls for comprehensive review will continue to take into account the history of settlements within Congress. Since 1997, there have been around 264 secret settlements, with amounts near totaling to $17 million, though not all for sexual harassment. The problem embeds itself as part of a non-transparent culture that Congress must work to reform.

And while looking inwards to congressional administrative policies in taking a stance against sexual harassment is a great first step, it cannot be the only consideration in the comprehensive review of sexual assault that Ryan calls for.

The Trump Administration and Republicans in Congress have long been harsh on women’s reproductive health policies. While calls for more legislation protecting women’s reproductive autonomy may seem like quick politicization of sexual assault, the research shows that the two are connected.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists reports when it comes to intimate partner relationships, experiencing sexual assault increases a woman’s risk of unintended pregnancies. Additionally, women experiencing violence, harassment or assault are more likely to present a lack of birth control because of a partner’s unwillingness to use birth control or because the partner wants a pregnancy.

Ryan’s comprehensive review of sexual harassment will need to search deeper than the surface for the ways in which Congress treats women. The negligence of Republican congressmen towards a woman’s right to choose can even be seen in the recent tax bill. Hidden anti-abortion language on page 93 of the 429-page proposal creates way for a provision that would allow fetuses to be named as beneficiaries of college savings accounts. The implications this has for a woman experiencing a forced pregnancy and abuse by her partner must be considered in the conversation on protecting women from sexual assault.

But even if Republican lawmakers are unwilling to acknowledge the reproductive health connection to sexual assault and continue to be adamant in decreasing the number of abortions in America, then a consistent commitment to defunding Planned Parenthood and lack of advocacy for comprehensive sexual education doesn’t quite make sense either. Investigative fact checking has found that Planned Parenthood does not spend federal money on abortion. Rather, the money is spent on services, such as STI testing, contraception, and community education. As for Paul Ryan’s comprehensive approach to sexual assault, comprehensive sexual education in schools would go hand-in-hand with this, providing discussion on sexual harassment and abuse as a part of discussion on sex to better inform the people who the future of this country depends on.

“Harassment in any form has no place in this institution,” expressed Paul Ryan when mandating the sexual harassment training, standing in front of a room of our elected officials on Capitol Hill. Should Ryan stay true to his word of a comprehensive response to sexual harassment and assault, perhaps he will have to be open to examining legislation beyond the obvious Congressional Accountability Act for the ways in which various policies and our political culture, at large, takes away agency from women.