Eleven score and two years ago, our Founding Fathers sat at the Constitutional Convention debating whether to abolish slavery or stick with the status quo. Slavery contradicted their reasoning for ditching the mother land in the first place — “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Despite their ideological convictions, they dropped the slavery issue to be dealt with at a later time. Hypocrites.
Last Saturday, it became apparent that some of our current Fathers were also being a little hypocritical. As they sat down to create health care coverage for all Americans, the House of Representatives debated whether their plan should cover abortion. Should all women have the equal right to receive quality reproductive health care? Not yet, they decided. The Stupak/Pitts amendment to the legislation stipulates that any insurance plan covered by federal money cannot cover abortion, and it passed (ironically with the help of normally pro-choice representatives) 220-215.
The issue, of course, is larger than mere hypocrisy. Pro-life legislators would have never voted on health care reform with abortion coverage included, and the legislation would have never left the House. As the bill awaits discussion in the Senate, pro-choice Democrats are faced with a tough moral dilemma: whether it is better to make progress in some areas while hindering it in others. Is it acceptable to compromise some values so that others prevail?
Many House Democrats answered this by voting — 177 out of 194 Democrats that voted Nay on the Stupak/Pitts Amendment then voted Yes on the entire health care bill, amendment included. With health care reform so close, they seemed to think that the abortion amendment was not worth fighting over.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, an ardent supporter of reproductive rights, decided last Friday to allow a vote on the adoption of strict abortion coverage regulations to the bill. To win the votes of conservative Democrats needed to pass health care reform, the speaker felt the amendment was necessary. Politico justified that she is “more ruthlessly practical than her frequent caricature as an activist, upper-crust liberal from San Francisco would suggest.” Pelosi had her eye on a prize for which she had to pull strings to win.
Other pro-choice Dems were outraged. “This amendment takes away that same freedom of conscience from America’s women. It invades women’s personal decisions,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. in a New York Times article. The San Francisco Chronicle politics blog quoted Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill calling the amendment “ridiculous” and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif saying it will “‘take us back to the days of back-alley abortions,’ and is a dangerous intrusion of religion into the state.”
Pro-choice representatives resisted a vote on the amendment with strong emotions deeply rooted in a more than 30-year struggle to further abortion rights. “This was like making pro-choice democrats choose between their children,” says Jordan Fein, president of Northwestern University College Democrats.
But most of these angry Democrats voted to pass the whole enchilada anyway. They seemed flaky by first fighting passionately against the amendment and then voting for a bill including it, but pro-choice Dems figured they would vote in favor of the House bill and later fight for changes when the final legislation is negotiated with the Senate. According to the same Politico article, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y. rationalized before the health care vote, “I don’t believe any of us believe we can hold up what we’ve been fighting for [...] and that’s health care.”
The legislation places pro-choice Democrats in a difficult position. “Getting a comprehensive health care reform bill passed is incredibly important. The process would sort of lose momentum if it were to be delayed any further,” says Emily Raymond, Co-director of Northwestern University College Feminists. It was likely that the Dems would lose on both fronts if they tried to fight the two battles at once.
And it’s not like major abortion rights victories were overturned. Jasmin Avila, president of Northwestern Students for Life, feels that the Stupak/Pitts Amendment is a mere reaffirmation of the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which banned Medicaid-funded abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or if the woman’s life is endangered. “It doesn’t speak to the future legality or illegality of abortion. It simply prevents abortion from being government funded,” she says.
But Fein says the new amendment could do more damage than reaffirm an existing law; it builds on Hyde, curtailing abortion rights even further. “This amendment basically tells people if they want to have health insurance, they’re not going to be able to spend their own money on abortion,” he says.
Ellen R. Malcolm, president of Emily’s List, an organization that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, blogged on The Huffington Post that private insurers who participate in the government health insurance exchange would not be able to cover abortion, which is currently available in many private plans. Many also argue that women with low socioeconomic status will be negatively targeted and that private insurance companies will no longer have incentive to offer abortion coverage.
The pro-choice Dems will have another chance to defeat the Stupak/Pitts Amendment in the Senate. Women’s rights organizations are gearing up to lobby for a fight that they feel cannot be lost. Fein is not optimistic, though, since the Senate tends to be more conservative than the House. Raymond also has doubts. “There are enough people in Congress who don’t respect reproductive rights and don’t even want a comprehensive health care bill to be passed in the first place,” she says. “I think it might be kind of an uphill battle at this point.” According to TheHill.com, however, 40 legislators promised to oppose the final health care bill if the current language on abortion is included. Only time will tell.
As we wait, perhaps Congress should consider the consequences of our forefathers’ decision. Instead of being dealt with behind Convention doors, the slavery issue was eventually resolved in the form of the Civil War. Although it will never be clear whether this war was inevitable, it does evoke the question of what will happen down the road if the abortion issue is continuously left on the backburner.