Health Care Bill Throws Women Under the Bus on Reproductive Rights


Less than 24 hours after the House passed its historic health care reform bill, the mixed reaction from feminists and women's groups provides a taste of the bitter pill it forces them to swallow, even as political allies celebrate a momentous legislative victory.

Despite the many good elements in the health care bill, it deals a heavy blow to those who hoped that healthcare reform might pass without throwing women -- particularly poor women -- under the bus when it came to reproductive rights.

"The final health-care reform bill represents a huge loss for the pro-choice movement, and one largely dealt by Democrats," writes Dana Goldstein at The Daily Beast.

It's difficult not to be moved by the figure 31 million -- the number of uninsured people who will have access to less-expensive coverage after reform. But we should all understand that the bill was passed at the expense of poor women's reproductive rights. Middle-class and rich women -- the wives, daughters, and mistresses of politicians -- can always travel to get an abortion or pay out of pocket if they have to.

Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) decried the inclusion of "a sweeping anti-abortion provision" that "ultimately achieves the same outcome as the infamous Stupak-Pitts Amendment, namely the likely elimination of all private as well as public insurance coverage for abortion." As AlterNet's Adele Stan explains, this provision, courtesy of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, "demands that women receiving federal subsidies for health insurance write a second check to their insurer for policies purchased through the government-administered exchanges for any portion of their policy that covers abortion."

O'Neill called it a "bizarre requirement."

"Even employers will have to write two separate checks for each of their employees requesting the abortion rider," she added -- a troubling prospect indeed.

And what about Obama's Executive Order, negotiated in exchange for votes from anti-choice Democrats? The order promises the government will hew to longstanding restrictions on reproductive rights in the form Hyde Amendment, named after anti-choice Republican Henry Hyde. Goldstein describes it as a "Faustian bargain" that has the effect of "enshrining the Hyde Amendment and expanding its reach into the new private insurance exchanges created by the health-care bill." Jane Hamsher describes it as "a national shame" especially from "a Democratic President who pledged the repeal of the Hyde Amendment." ("How far we've come since 2007, when Barack Obama swore that his first act in office would be to sign the Freedom of Choice Act.") NARAL condemned the order, calling it "deeply disappointing," while Planned Parenthood released a carefully worded statement that made clear that Obama had little choice: "We regret that a pro-choice president of a pro-choice nation was forced to sign an Executive Order that further codifies the proposed anti-choice language in the health-care reform bill."

Still, others dismiss the executive order as a primarily symbolic move, a restatement of what is already true under the Hyde Amendment. "The executive order is a red herring," writes Lindsay Beyerstein at the Media Consortium. "It won't impose any further restrictions, it just restates the status quo."

The problem with the status quo, as Feministing contributor Jos Truitt points out, is that it is "horrible."

"Many reproductive rights organizations have taken the position that we should maintain the status quo regarding the use of federal funds for abortion in health care reform," Truitt wrote in November. "I understand the pragmatism of this approach -- passing health care reform is a massively difficult undertaking that has been derailed before. Trying to keep abortion out of the debate as much as possible without losing ground was an understandable goal. But let's be clear: the status quo sucks."

Since Roe v. Wade there has been a steady chipping away at access to abortion, with those who are already the most vulnerable experiencing the brunt of these attacks. The fact that abortion is legal doesn't do much good for women who can't have the procedure because of financial and other barriers.

Indeed, in a statement, the National Network of Abortion Funds cited the "cruel legacy of the Hyde Amendment," namely, the fact that poor women are forced to ration scarce money in order to cover abortions.

As a nation, we demanded that health care reform address the inherent inequality and unfairness in our existing system. But with the stroke of his pen, President Obama expanded the Hyde Amendment's guarantee of inequality and unfairness. … By singling out abortion care, Congress and our President have betrayed their obligation to protect the interests of all people living in this country, not only those who already have every advantage.

With Obama's rabid opponents on Capitol Hill calling him "the most pro-abortion president in American history," as Indiana Rep. Mike Pence put it on Sunday, perhaps it comes as no surprise that the White House was so willing to resort to such a move to prove them wrong for the sake of passing its legislation. But at a time when dedicated anti-choice activists are making inroads in states like Utah (where the governor just signed legislation effectively criminalizing miscarriages), it is not hard to see why it feel like a betrayal to Obama’s pro-choice supporters.

Of course, there’s plenty of blame to go around, and it extends far beyond the White House. At FireDogLake on Sunday, Jane Hamsher posted a quiz titled "Who is the Most to Blame for Selling Out Abortion Rights in the Health Care Bill?" The choices included NARAL, "for staying silent in exchange for White House access," Planned Parenthood, "for staying silent in exchange for health center money," the Pro-Choice caucus, and its leader, Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, who "agreed to the Executive Order before she saw it."

At The Nation, Katha Pollitt had a different take, noting that "NARAL, Planned Parenthood and NOW stepped back," but contrasting the willingness of reproductive rights supporters to bow to the greater good in passing health reform to the craven obstructionism of anti-choice right-wingers. “As healthcare reform becomes law, you can thank prochoicers,” she writes. “In the end, forced to decide between sacrificing abortion coverage and voting down coverage of everything else for 30 million people, abortion-rights supporters took the hit.”

You can call pro-choice leaders hypocritical or cowardly or feeble or excessively deferential to the president's agenda. But one thing you can't call them is selfishly obsessed with their own political purity. That would be the antichoicers -- the Catholic bishops, Bart Stupak, Ben Nelson. They were the big evil babies who were willing to let millions suffer and 45,000 people die every year unless they got to deprive women of their reproductive rights.

Now, argues Pollitt, "the Democratic Party and the Obama administration owe supporters of women's rights a huge payback for cooperating on its signature issue."

But as pro-choicers continue to respond to the healthcare reform bill, elsewhere in the media, the question of reproductive rights -- or what Obama and the Dems owe women -- is conspicuously absent. In a Sunday night post assessing Health Care Reform's "winners" and "losers," Newsweek's Howard Fineman counted the president, Nancy Pelosi, and "near-poverty Americans not covered by Medicaid" as among the winners (also, the Tea Partiers), while insurance companies, the GOP, and "wealthy and semi-wealthy taxpayers" among the losers. Women in need of abortions? Didn't make the cut.

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