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Category: Politics, Health, Reproductive Rights

Health Care Reform: Pro-choice Forces Win the First Round in the Senate

| November 23, 2009

Senate Democrats held firm to allow debate to begin on a health care bill that avoids the abortion restrictions of the House-passed measure—and pro-choice activists are mobilizing to keep the heat on. But there are many hurdles ahead.

Everyone knew the import of the Saturday night Senate vote on health care.

Yes, it was historic in the sense it moved forward the first comprehensive health reform bill in decades, following House action a week earlier. That means weeks of debate will begin after the Thanksgiving break.

But for the feminist community, as well as the anti-abortion lobby, the vote also meant that the Senate bill would not contain the House-passed Stupak amendment, which would vastly extend the 1976 Hyde amendment banning federal funds for abortion. Anti-abortion Republican senators pleaded in vain for at least one Democrat to break ranks and block the health bill, to keep the Stupak amendment alive.

The Stupak amendment basically would prohibit insurers from offering abortion coverage in the proposed health insurance marketplace that is expected to provide insurance to more than 30 million people. The compromise language in the Senate bill would permit insurers to offer plans covering abortion that women would have to pay for with the portion of the premium that they buy with their own money, not with federal funds. Up to 80 percent of people in the insurance exchanges are expected to receive federal subsidies to cushion the cost of insurance. Those subsidies would have to be walled off from private money in paying for abortion coverage.

The Senate vote came after a week of escalating protests by pro-choice women, with high-level meetings at the White House and in Congress and with intensive organizing underway nationally for a December 2 pro-choice rally in Washington.

“Stupak was a massive wakeup call,” says Erin Matson, action vice president of the National Organization for Women, who took office last summer along with NOW President Terry O’Neill. Matson is 29 and from Minneapolis. She has been a feminist organizer for a decade and was a founding member of NOW’s Young Feminist Task Force.

She said the reach of the Stupak amendment stunned not just veterans in the women’s movement but also those in Generation Y, women in their child-bearing years who had not given serious thought to the prospect that abortion might really be outlawed. The outrage, she said, took the form of “Wait a minute—we have a Democratic president who says he’s pro-choice, we have a Democratic [House] speaker who says she’s pro-choice. How are we getting this greatest constitutional threat to Roe v. Wade at this time?”

Matson’s phone “is ringing off the hook. Women are signing on-line petitions who have never done anything in their lives, organizing in response to Congress trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. This is a direct attack on Roe for Generation Y.”

In an ABC interview last week, she said she kept getting questions about political strategy and the impact of abortion on upcoming elections. “I said, quite frankly, I’m not concerned about the Blue Dog Democrats. What I’m concerned about are women on college campuses, women who are missing their periods.”

She said the shock on the faces of the interviewers made her realize that “in the mainstream media we’ve not been talking about abortion for what it is,” of the impact on “young women in their childbearing years. I think the response has been overwhelming.” Saturday’s Senate vote only starts the process. Attempts to add Stupak to the Reid’s bill surely will be made but probably cannot succeed. Democrats would filibuster any such attempt and it would take 60 votes to defeat a filibuster. The anti-abortion forces don’t have the votes to do that.

At the same time, there is no guarantee that the Senate will muster enough votes to pass the health care bill, ultimately, with divisions in the Democratic ranks on abortion and with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops criticizing the compromise abortion language crafted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

The Reid bill would uphold the principle of the1976 Hyde amendment of not permitting federal spending for abortion but would provide for segregation of federal from private funds used to pay for abortion coverage. His compromise is similar to that shaped last summer by Representative Lois Capps (D-CA), which had been in the House bill brought up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi before the bishops threatened to rally enough Catholic House members to kill the bill unless Pelosi permitted an up-or-down vote on Stupak. She did that, and the amendment was adopted by a large margin, including the votes of 64 Democrats.

If the Senate does pass its health care bill, conferees from the House and Senate would be named to reconcile the differences in the bills, providing the next serious showdown on Stupak. If the amendment had been allowed in the Senate bill, conferees would have no leeway to change or delete it.

For now, the women’s rights community savored a victory after its significant loss in the House.

Hundreds turned out in Washington for the annual fundraising dinner of the National Women’s Law Center, raising more than $800,000. Last week, hundreds of activist women came to Washington for high-voltage strategy sessions with Obama Administration and congressional leaders to spell out the dire consequences a Stupak amendment would have on women’s reproductive rights. They hope to rally many thousands of women to come in for a December 2 protest that would be coupled with lobbying members of Congress to preserve Roe v. Wade and to block the giant expansion of the Hyde amendment that Stupak would engineer.

Most insurance plans today cover abortion. The huge expansion of health insurance options under Obama-sponsored reform measures would actually restrict coverage of abortion from today’s levels, if the Stupak amendment became law. Under the Hyde amendment of 1976, federal money has been blocked from any direct funding for abortion but in many states, private or state money is used to pay for abortion for low-income women, for instance, in the Medicaid program.

“Now, women can buy insurance coverage that covers abortion,” says Byllye Avery of the National Black Women’s Health Project. “Under [Stupak’s restrictions on the proposed insurance] exchange, you wouldn’t be able to…. It means you can’t pay for it with your own money.”

“It will affect all women of reproductive age…. If they make the very difficult decision to have an abortion, for financial or for medical reasons, then they’d have to figure out how to pay for it,” Avery said. “There are states now where if you have insurance that will pay for abortion, you have to go to great lengths to find a provider who will accept your insurance. You can imagine how more difficult it will become.”