Personal Health

Health Care Reform Is Not Reform If It Denies Women Coverage

Sen. Harry Reid and the Senate Dems aren't winning any friends among the broad base of voters who support reproductive rights.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid continued his health-care-by-the-holidays rush Saturday, and he was having some tactical success.

But Reid and the Democrats weren't winning any friends among the broad base of voters who support reproductive rights.

In order to secure the critical 60th vote needed to advance the compromise legislation he wants to see the Senate pass before Christmas, Reid agreed to amend the legislation to include severe restrictions on access to basic health care for women.

That concession brought Senator Ben Nelson, a socially-conservative Democrat who is closely aligned with the health-insurance industry, on board -- meaning that Reid should have the 60-member Democratic caucus united in time for critical votes that begin early Monday morning.

If all Democrats back the bill, it will clear any hurdles erected by the 40-member Republican minority.

To get Nelson's vote, Reid had to agree to restrict the availability of abortions in insurance sold in newly created exchanges.

"I know this is hard for some of my colleagues to accept and I appreciate their right to disagree," Nelson said of the anti-choice language. "But I would not have voted for this bill without these provisions."

The question now is whether supporters of abortion rights can -- or should -- back a bill that not only disrespects but disregards a woman's right to choose.

While President Obama made a bizarre statement Saturday about how he was "pleased that recently added amendments have made this landmark bill even stronger," representatives of groups that advocate for the rights of women were condemning those amendments and the bill as a whole.

Terry O'Neill, the president of the National Organization for Women, condemned the move as "a cave in" by Reid" that turns the legislation into "a health insurance bill for half the population."

Says O'Neill:

 

The so-called health care reform bill now before the Senate, with the addition of Majority Leader Harry Reid's Manager's Amendment, amounts to a health insurance bill for half the population and a sweeping anti-abortion law for the rest of us. And by the way, it's the rest of us who voted the current leadership into both houses of Congress.

The National Organization for Women is outraged that Senate leadership would cave in to Sen. Ben Nelson, offering a compromise that amounts to a Stupak-like ban on insurance coverage for abortion care. Right-wing ideologues like Nelson and the Catholic Bishops may not understand this, but abortion is health care. And health care reform is not true reform if it denies women coverage for the full range of reproductive health services.

We call on all senators who consider themselves friends of women's rights to reject the Manager's Amendment, and if it remains, to defeat this cruelly over-compromised legislation.

NOW has launched a campaign to urge senators to oppose what it refers to a the "stealth Stupak" provision in the Senate bill. (That's a reference to the rigid anti-abortion amendment language attached to the House health care bill by Congressman Bart Stupak, D-Michigan.)

The Planned Parenthood Federation of America was equally condemnatory.

Said PPFA president Cecile Richards:

 

Planned Parenthood strongly opposes the new abortion language offered by Senator Ben Nelson in the manager's amendment. Last week, the Senate rejected harsh restrictions on abortion coverage, and it is a sad day when women's health is traded away for one vote.

The Nelson language is essentially an abortion rider. It creates an unworkable system whereby individuals are required to write two separate checks each month, one for abortion care and one for everything else. There is no sound policy reason to require women to pay separately for their abortion coverage other than to try to shame them and draw attention to the abortion coverage. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that insurance companies will be willing to follow such an administratively cumbersome system, leaving tens of millions of women without abortion coverage.

After the passage of the Stupak amendment in the House, we heard loud and clear from women across the country that they will not stand for the undermining of their rights and their access to benefits. This Nelson abortion check provision will no doubt create the same outrage, as women learn that they are being made second-class citizens when it comes to health care coverage.

As many members of Congress and the president believe, Planned Parenthood does not think that health care reform is the forum to litigate abortion policy. Unfortunately, opponents continue to use abortion as a political wedge at every step of the reform process.

There is no policy reason for this action, it is simply a political maneuver. We understand that leaders in the Senate and the White House want to move the process forward, but given this provision, we have no choice but to oppose the Senate bill. Planned Parenthood will now work with leaders to fix the abortion coverage language in conference.

Richards is right. The health-care reform debate is not the place to litigate abortion policy.

She is also right that it ought to be possible to fix the abortion coverage language in the House-Senate conference committee -- which will be charged with reconciling the wildly different House and Senate health-care reform bills.

But "ought to be" is different from "will," which means that health-care "reform" could yet end up severely limiting a woman's right to choose.

That ought to give responsible senators reason to pause as they consider whether to support Reid's severely-compromised legislation.

The bottom line: An already disappointing proposal is getting dramatically more disappointing. And the rush to pass a bill, any bill, before the holiday break offers another reminder that even the most well-intended legislation can, when cobbled together in haste and desperation, end up doing more harm than good.

John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.
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