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Will Fundamental Rights or Fundamentalism Prevail in the Health Care Battle?

Shortly after midnight, Senate Democrats amassed the 60 votes necessary to pass a key test for health care legislation, but only after bowing to demands on abortion coverage that threaten women’s health and well-being.

It was Ted Kennedy’s dream that health care become “a fundamental right, not a privilege” for all citizens.

After breaking a Republican filibuster with a vote on cloture this weekend, the Democratic majority Senate has moved forward with a health care bill that begs the question: will women also enjoy this fundamental health care right if access to reproductive health is limited?

If the latest version of the Senate bill is passed—likely to happen before Christmas—the answer could be, “Well, no, not really.” Democrats eager to put health care on their legislative passport decided that Ben Nelson, the anti-choice senator from Nebraska, is so crucial in passing health care reform that they could throw half the population under the bus in order to meet his demands.

Senators Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington, two pro-choice stalwarts, seemingly capitulated to Nelson’s demands on Saturday by agreeing to add in new abortion restrictions and offering the Senate a sugar-coated pill called the Manager’s Amendment, which includes some special rules related to abortion.

These additions are now on the way to a final vote in the Senate and will allow states to opt out, or prohibit, abortion coverage in qualified health plans offered through the exchange, the marketplace where millions of uninsured individuals will be able to buy coverage. The Washington Post says that if this version of the bill passes, “enrollees in plans that cover abortion procedures would pay with separate checks—one for abortion, one for any other health-care services.”

Boxer outlined in an email on Sunday how the current bill will extend health insurance coverage to 31 million more Americans, prohibit insurance company discrimination based on gender or pre-existing condition, end upward increases in insurance premiums, increase funds for community health centers—which would enhance primary care for more than 25 million people who have traditionally been uninsured or underinsured—require insurance companies to spend at least 85 percent of their income on patient care, and, according to the Congressional Budget Office, cut the federal deficit by $132 billion.

But Boxer failed to mention the potential loss of abortion rights when she sent these facts out to her constituents asking for donations to reward her efforts with the Manager’s Amendment.

Currently, 17 states opt in to paying for abortion through Medicaid, indicating they will leave such coverage intact with the offerings through the exchange. It is unclear how the remaining 33 states will react, which makes it possible for abortion rights to be completely stripped from the hands of low income women by the predominantly male-led state legislatures.

While one of the national non-profit plans in the exchange should cover abortion, that choice is not left with women individually, but given to the state. If a state opts out of abortion coverage in the exchange, this would leave Planned Parenthood clinics as the only viable option for those seeking access to abortion without a private insurance plan.

For the second time in the health care reform process, reproductive rights are being traded in for “greater good” of health care reform. How did this all happen?

The Hill reported early on last week that Senator Joe Lieberman and Nelson were seeking compromises on separate points, dropping Medicare expansion in order to get Lieberman’s vote and including language that restricts abortion access to appease Nelson.

Looking at the legislation now, it appears that both Lieberman and Nelson got their way and Democrats now have the 60 votes needed to pass the bill. Medicare is not being expanded, the public option is dropped, abortion coverage is restricted and it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that health insurance stocks reached 52-week high on Friday according to Howard Dean.

Representative Bart Stupak, author of the restrictive abortion amendment in the House, and the religious right are dissenting from the compromise. They want to make sure that neither public nor private insurance has the ability to offer abortion services within the federally funded exchange program. According to Politico, Stupak tried to coordinate with Senate Republicans to make sure his strident views about abortion, and those of the Catholic Church hierarchy, were included in the Senate version. But, as of today, his requests were met only half way.

This particular detail—the one about the Catholic Church meddling in legislative affairs—is important to understanding just how abortion has become the wedge issue in health care reform.

Somewhere during the circus acts of Sarah Palin, Michael Steele, Rush Limbaugh, and Dick Cheney, a dangerous opening was created for new voices to fill the GOP void of leadership with the opinions of religious leaders. Written about extensively in New York Times Magazine this weekend, the Catholic Church is turning into “a tool of the Republican Party”—and is the driving force behind anti-choice legislation. At this point, Democrats like Stupak and Nelson, who is a lay minister in a Christian Church, also appear to be on a religious crusade to disrupt access to abortion within the battle for health care reform.

With fundamental rights and fundamentalism both competing in the health care reform arena, it is still a question of which one will prevail.

So, stay tuned while the Senate completes the vote on the bill this week and the Senate and House reconcile the two versions. Only time can tell to see whether women will bear the ultimate cost of fixing our country’s broken medical system.

More articles by Category: Health, Politics
More articles by Tag: Reproductive rights



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