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Category: Politics, Health, Reproductive Rights

The Democrats’ Dilemma: Their Own Trojan Horse Kicks Free

| November 12, 2009

Democratic leaders have said that the turn-around on abortion contained in the House health-reform bill will not appear in the final version. The author, a Women’s Media Center board member and former president ofPlanned Parenthood Federation of America, explains here why voters who value women’s health cannot sit back and accept such assurances.

House Democrats broke into a paroxysm of self-congratulation for passing a health reform bill. By embracing the Stupak-Pitts amendment, however, they entered the women’s hall of shame. They had promised no more limitations based on preexisting conditions. But House leadership allowed a codicil: Except if you are a woman.

The Stupak-Pitts amendment to the health bill is a sweeping ban on insurance coverage of abortion. It expands the 1976 Hyde amendment, which outlaws abortion coverage by existing Federally funded programs, to middle class women participating in the public option, even if they pay from their own pocketbooks. Hyde began a juggernaut of restrictions on abortion and birth control that I’d hoped the current health care debate would rectify.

Headlines blaring, “Abortion an Obstacle to Health-Care Bill,” got it backward. And the biggest obstacle was President Obama’s approach, which meshed all too well with Speaker Pelosi’s: they are both so averse to feather-ruffling that one wonders why they entered the rough and tumble of politics in the first place. No amount of Rahm Emmanuel’s mean-guy interference could have kept this chicken’s eggs from breaking, let alone its feathers in place.

Smart as he is, why didn’t Obama know that when you start from a position of compromise, you'll end up with a fragment of what you wanted, if that? The public option is too weak to exercise serious cost-cutting control. And now women have been sacrificed, like so much detritus, even though we are 51 percent of the population and (in case they haven't noticed) 60 percent of Democratic voters. In response, I’m seeing the most intense wave of anger building among women voters of all ages since the Senate’s 1991 trashing of Anita Hill culminated in the 1992 “Year of the Woman”.

I am not convinced by after-the-fact reassurances that the final bill will reflect the already unjust status quo via the Capps amendment “compromise” that codifies existing restrictions. That’s because the table for expanding prohibitions on abortion was set by the Democrats themselves.

Nancy Pelosi and I walked together on the frontline of the March for Women’s Lives in April 2004—at 1.2 million strong, the largest civil rights protest ever mustered in the nation’s capital, demonstrating that the majority of Americans stood for women. But Pelosi, like many Democrats, allowed herself to be frightened by misinterpreting Republican victories that fall.

Frankly, John Kerry lost that election all by himself, in no small part by taking increasingly equivocal positions on issues—from war and peace to abortion—that concerned women. That Karl Rove’s grassroots machine then prevailed over Kerry’s demoralized base shouldn’t have shocked anyone. But post-election, the losing Democrats took the predictable circular position and started shooting at one another. Pelosi excoriated me for blasting anti-choice Tim Roemer’s candidacy for chair of the Democratic Party, a possibility that was one of the first signals to me of principles gone rogue.

The Democrats jubilantly regained control of the House in 2006. But in doing so they built their own Trojan horse and rolled it right into the center of the party’s soul. Howard Dean, who had entered the 2004 presidential race proclaiming himself the candidate from the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” became, ironically, one of the main architects of a desperation plan to recruit any anti-choice pol who had a chance to defeat a Republican.

Some strategists, like Daily Beast columnist Peter Beinert, assert this was the smart way for the Democrats to gain a governing majority. But if party powers had recruited, supported, and funded progressive women candidates at the level they wooed Blue Dogs, they could have saved both their integrity and their majority, and they’d be much stronger today. Pelosi said she was “breaking the marble ceiling” when she accepted the speaker’s gavel. As sparkly-eyed and optimistic as any other attendee, I wrote about her swearing in for the Women’s Media Center, saying she would be smart to “spend less time cultivating the ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats and recognize the progressive women as her greatest asset.” Clearly she didn’t get that message.

But many women in Congress did. Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) assured the Washington Postthe day after the vote: "There's going to be a firestorm here. Women are going to realize that a Democratic-controlled House has passed legislation that would prohibit women paying for abortions with their own funds. . . We're not going to let this into law." To back up her claim, she’s collected 41 and counting signatures from House Democrats that they will kill any final bill retaining the Stupak amendment’s restrictions. That’s enough to block passage of one of the cornerstones on which Barack Obama has staked his presidency.

And while we must keep pointing the finger of blame at the weasely Democrats, the fact is that the Catholic Bishops and the National Right to Life played with the kind of hardball tactics that pro-choice advocates failed to employ. From here out, we need a different, bolder, more proactive approach.

So how do women get out from the underside of the bus and start driving it?

First, we cannot accept any health care reform that retreats on women’s human right to reproductive self-determination. Second, this health reform debate is the opportunity to revisit and excise the cancer represented by the Hyde amendment and make women’s health care whole again (yes, President Obama, abortion IS health care).

But let’s not stop there. President Obama said during the elections that the Freedom of Choice Act, which would guarantee women's civil right to make our own childbearing decisions and give us at last the right to our own lives, would be among his top priorities. He subsequently took it off the priority list, but we must hold him to his promise by the fire of our political engagement.

That’s how the Democrats can send their Trojan horse packing and get back on the road to fairness and justice for which their party stands. For if they think a health reform bill betraying women is victory, they’ll soon find out it's a Pyrrhic one indeed.

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