From The Women’s Media Center
By Peggy Simpson
After the shocking setback in the House for abortion rights, women’s rights groups turned their attention to the Senate, which could begin debate on health care reform next week.
November 13, 2009
Whether the Senate blocks a House-passed amendment that would vastly expand federal bans on abortion depends partly on whether the women’s groups can persuade their progressive allies to stand up with them in opposition.
The jury’s out on that right now. But much organizing is underway against the amendment by Representatives Bart Stupak (D-MI) and Joe Pitts (R-Pa), which was added to the House health care reform bill in a shocking move last Saturday.
Many progressive and left-of-center groups had focused their efforts on passing health care reform. They celebrated its narrow victory in the House, by a 220-215 margin, and gave short shrift to the Stupak amendment, representing the most significant expansion of the Hyde amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion since 1976.
That didn’t sit well with some.
Amie Newman, managing editor of RH Reality Check, headlined her article: “Dear Progressive Allies in Health Care Reform: Where Were You on the Stupak Amendment?” She wrote that she got elated emails from MoveOn.org, her state Democratic Party, Americans for Democratic Action and SEIU about House action on health care. But “none of you mention the heinous hit women’s access to abortion care took when this House bill was passed.” The groups ignored the fight ahead for pro-choice legislators. “Not one of your emails touches on the ways in which abortion access is critical to a broader progressive agenda. …How can it be that somehow abortion access has been largely ignored by other progressive organizations working for health care reform?”
This is indeed a watershed moment, a wakeup call, for Democratic women.
Representative Diane DeGette (D-Co) gets credit for buying time for reproductive rights groups to overcome their shock, rally their own troops and start “educating” the progressive groups about the weight of abortion rights within the overall health care issue. By Sunday, fewer than 24 hours after the House vote, DeGette announced she had commitments from 41 House members to vote against any final health care bill that contained the Stupak amendment. That sobered political leaders, including in the White House, into realizing this was no simple “disagreement.”
The media took notice and editorials and critical cartoons began appearing. Joel Pett, a cartoonist from the Lexington Herald Leader, portrayed an angry Town Hall-type of protestor, waving his anti-abortion placard at an Uncle Sam figure, saying “I don’t need government making my health care decisions. … I need you making HERS,” pointing to a woman going into a clinic.”
Planned Parenthood’s Cecile Richards convened a Tuesday meeting with leaders of 80 progressive groups and summoned grass roots reproductive rights leaders to Washington for a day of lobbying November 18. By Thursday, MoveOn.org introduced a fundraising email by talking about the radical anti-abortion amendment attached to the House health care reform bill.
President Obama, meanwhile, had used a network interview to express his dismay. He said the bill without the Stupak amendment preserved the principle of Hyde that “federal dollars are not used to subsidize abortions.” He said he opposed moves to restrict “women’s insurance choices” in the new health care insurance exchange.
Months ago, this issue was addressed in both the House and Senate reform bills with a compromise shaped by Representative Lois Capps (D-CA), a nurse who had crafted many of the women’s health initiatives in the reform packages. The Capps compromise (which became the model for a similar provision in the Senate Finance Committee plan) would allow private insurers who participate in the health insurance exchange to include abortion coverage in their health care plans—as a majority of private plans now do, including, it turns out, the Cigna plan for the Republican National Committee. Capps would segregate federal funds from private funds in the health care exchange, including in plans for moderate to low-income people getting subsidies to buffer the costs of insurance. The portion of the premium paid privately by the insured person would pay for the abortion coverage.
With the floor vote about to be taken, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops pressed for a far more Draconian expansion of Hyde. With two dozen anti-abortion House Democrats, they forced a House vote on the Stupak amendment that for the first time would apply the Hyde amendment to the private sector. It would prohibit private insurers in the health care exchange from offering abortion coverage for the millions of people expected to get federal “affordability” subsidies to buy insurance plans. The amendment passed, with the votes of 64 Democrats and a near-unanimous array of Republicans.
Mainstream political commentators said the same thing would happen in the Senate—and the reproductive rights groups would just have to take their lumps.
The fury of pro-choice women began to have an impact within several days, however. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who personally opposes abortion, said he thought the language already in the Senate Finance Committee bill would suffice to wall off any federal financing of abortion. That was said also to be the view of another anti-abortion Democratic senator, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who had voted in committee against a Stupak-type provision a month earlier. A moderate Arkansas Democrat facing a tough reelection fight next year, Senator Blanche Lincoln, said the Senate Finance Committee had gone to great lengths to respect the Hyde amendment and “didn’t add to it or take away from it in any way.” That should be enough, she said.
An estimated 30 million people are expected to buy insurance in the new exchange, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Office—about nine million of them in plans bought by small businesses. Millions of others buying in would be individuals who have not been able to get coverage on their own in today’s marketplace. Many, but not all, could get federal subsidies to lower the insurance costs.
Meanwhile, the role of the Catholic Church and its own wealth of federal funds came under scrutiny. The bishops are experts in separating public and private dollars—as is called for by the Capps amendment in health care reform—because that’s what they do with the federal money going to Catholic Charities (which totaled $2.8 billion in 2008).
“The bishops never question their own ability to lawfully manage funds from separate sources to ensure that tax dollars don’t finance religious practices,” say Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, and Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. ”Yet they reject the idea that others could do the same. This is the very definition of hypocrisy.”
Eyal Press in The Nation said if Stupak and others were serious about assuring taxpayers they won’t be subsidizing abortion in any way, “why haven’t they drawn up an amendment abolishing tax breaks for employer-sponsored health insurance?”
In another op-ed, former NARAL president Kate Michaelman and Frances Kissling, former Catholics for Choice president, couldn’t resist saying “We told you so,” about the Democratic Party’s recruitment of anti-abortion Democrats. “When it comes to abortion, [Democrats] seem to think all positions are of equal value so long as the party maintains a majority. But the party will eventually reap what it has sown.”
In her own blog, Kissing said she sympathizes with the dilemma faced by her friends in House leadership. “These votes will trouble them for years to come.” But she added that “the Catholic in me says the next step is restitution. All is never lost. That restitution is their unswerving commitment and tireless work to overturn the Hyde Amendment.”