Getting Beyond “Abortion Neutrality”

I highly recommend Fred Clarkson’s piece about how pro-choice advocates came to accept the extension of the Hyde restrictions on abortion coverage in health care reform as “abortion neutral” or “maintaining the status quo.” In other words, since pro-choice advocates consider the Hyde restrictions — which prohibit the use of federal monies to cover abortions for poor women receiving Medicaid, and under other federal programs — unfair and discriminatory, how could extending those restrictions to women covered by a public insurance option or buying into an insurance exchange with federal subsidies to be “abortion neutral?” And why would you want to extend a “status quo” that you believe is unfair and discriminatory in the first place?

As I reported here both before and after the passage of the Stupak amendment in the House of Representatives, reproductive rights advocates agreed to an extension of Hyde to the House health care reform bill — as embodied in the Capps Amendment — in order to avoid a fight on abortion and help get health care reform passed. Indeed, in the days before the House vote, they would have even held their noses and acquiesced to a proposed amendment by Rep. Brad Ellsworth (D-IN), intended to satisfy Stupak, the Catholic bishops, and other religious activists who believed that Capps was not “abortion neutral.”

The Senate didn’t even have to get as far as an Ellsworth-type compromise, as it voted Tuesday night to defeat the Nelson-Hatch-Casey amendment, which was virtually identical to Stupak. While Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) is the only Democrat on record saying he wouldn’t vote for a final bill without his abortion amendment — or rather, he would side with the Republicans in refusing to end debate on the bill, effectively killing it by helping the Republicans fillibuster — Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who co-sponsored the amendment, has said he’d vote for the bill even without it. And it’s hard to divine what Sen. Evan Bayh (D-IN) (who has an 86% rating from Planned Parenthood) will do, as he voted for Nelson’s amendment without stating why, even as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid — who is not pro-choice — pleaded with his colleagues not to “undermine” the bill with abortion amendments.

Now there are signals from Senate leadership that some changes will have to be made to the abortion language to get the bill passed.

If the Senate does pass a bill, it will have to be reconciled with the House bill. Without the Nelson-Hatch amendment, the Senate bill looks more like the original House bill with the Capps amendment. Stupak insisted, in a New York Times op-ed this week, that his amendment does maintain the status quo — prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortions — and no more. Today Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) has a point-by-point rebuttal of Stupak’s claims, including:

The Stupak-Pitts amendment goes well beyond the status quo and is in no way the simple extension of the Hyde amendment its proponents claim.  It dramatically restricts consumers’ ability to purchase comprehensive health plans that include coverage for abortion services in the health exchange.  In contrast the Capps Amendment would have continued the prohibition of federal funding of abortion services, but did so without restricting insurance coverage of this legal medical procedure when it is paid for with private funds.

The point of the Capps amendment was to satisfy religious and other anti-choice constituencies who threatened to hold up health care if public funds paid for abortion. But if anything is clear from the actions of Stupak and his allies in the Senate and outside of Congress, it’s that no “compromise” was satisfactory unless it made it virtually impossible for women on a public plan or purchasing insurance with subsidies through an exchange to get an abortion. That’s because not only do they believe that public money shouldn’t in any way tangentially pay for an abortion, but that there shouldn’t be abortions at all.

Up against these hardliners — who are a minority in Congress, but hold trump cards in the delicate whip-counting needed to hold a coalition together to pass a bill — compromises by reproductive health advocates would never be satisfactory. Saying, “well, we compromised, why don’t you?” wasn’t going to work with these hardliners.

The Hyde Amendment is considered “status quo” only because the Democratic Party and reproductive health advocates haven’t been able to muster a sufficiently compelling argument against it that its supporters have for it. Hyde supporters talk about life, justice, fairness, and God to justify Hyde. When faced with that — and the prospect of appearing anti-God — most elected officials wilt at confronting what has become the de facto representation of what it means to be religious in America: being opposed to abortion.

Earlier this week Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) told the arch-conservative Cybercast News Service that it is “morally correct” for taxpayers to subsidize other people’s abortions, adding “Abortion is legal, and there (are) certain very tragic circumstances that a woman finds herself in. Married, with an unborn baby that’s unable to survive outside of the womb, her doctor tells her it’s a threat to her health.  I think she ought to have a policy available to her.” Feinstein didn’t even acknowledge that there are “non-tragic” circumstances in which it’s not only legal but moral — and moreover, nobody else’s business! — for a woman to have an abortion. The “tragic” language prevails, because anti-abortion forces have succeeded in defining it as an issue of justice, life, morality, and God.

While it’s probably too late to steer the health care reform discourse away from the “abortion neutral” language, neutrality shouldn’t be the prevailing goal in future discussions about reproductive health issues. It sounds defensive, like your position is somehow wrong or radioactive, and you need to neutralize it. And with new anti-choice campaigns like I Am Whole Life, which again relies on the life, justice, fairness, and God narrative, pro-choicers need one of their own that’s not neutral, but is substantive, justice-driven, and compelling.

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