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After Budget Showdown, Women Under the Bus

It's getting awfully crowded underneath that bus. You know, the metaphorical one women keep getting thrown under, along with their rights, their health and their money.

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It’s getting awfully crowded underneath that bus. You know, the metaphorical one women keep getting thrown under, along with their rights, their health and their money. Women lost much of their insurance coverage for abortion during the fight over the healthcare reform bill last fall, but at least they got some good things out of it: coverage for millions of uninsured women, preventive care including breast and cervical cancer screenings, and a bar on refusing coverage for such pre-existing conditions as having been a rape or domestic violence victim. Overall—and assuming the law is not overturned or sabotaged by the Republicans—women will be better off in terms of affordable healthcare, including reproductive healthcare, than if the bill had been scuttled over the Stupak-Pitts amendment.

The budget deal just concluded was no such compromise. The headlines are all about how the Democrats refused to cave to Republican demands to defund Planned Parenthood and saved the day for women’s reproductive health—at least until September, when the GOP and its media spokespeople will crank up their misogynistic fog machine all over again. It’s hard to see how they’d go further: Arizona’s Jon Kyl claimed on the floor of the House that “90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions” (it’s actually around 3 percent); his office later said his statement was “not intended to be factual.” Rush Limbaugh claimed, “Planned Parenthood is a money-laundering operation for the Democrat Party.” Glenn Beck said that only “hookers” use Planned Parenthood (in fact, one out of every five women has visited a PP clinic, including this writer). Widespread mockery of these weird remarks might lead you to think they backfired. Not necessarily. Look at the fine print: to keep Planned Parenthood’s federal funding, Democrats agreed to bar Washington, DC, from using its own revenues to pay for abortion care for women on Medicaid. And in a tiny footnote, the final budget cuts Title X, the federal family-planning program, by $17 million. What women “got” was only that one of three bad possibilities didn’t happen. You have to hand it to the Republicans: even when they lose, they win.

The Washington ban is more important than has been portrayed. First of all, it involves a lot more money than reported. “The sound and fury of last week’s budget debate came down to a dollar figure that some members of Congress could have covered by writing a personal check,” wrote Sabrina Tavernise in the New York Times, citing a figure of $62,300 since August. Actually, Laura Meyers, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, told me by phone that PPMW, the region’s largest abortion provider, just began accepting Medicaid for abortions in February. Thus, the annual sum paid out by the District would have been much higher than Tavernise implied. I mention this not to suggest that abortion is an expensive budget item—it isn’t, especially compared with, say, tax breaks for millionaires or our many ongoing wars—but to point out that this ban is not a trivial issue. There are 105,874 poor women receiving medical assistance, including Medicaid, in Washington; many are in their childbearing years. For them, the cost of a first-trimester abortion is a big deal. “When someone is struggling to feed and clothe their kids,” said Meyers, “$400 is huge. Just huge. Women will be scrambling now.” She noted that abortion funding bans do not prevent abortion; they merely push them later in pregnancy, when they are more expensive and more stressful.