A new way to attack abortion

Rachel Cohen looks at another frustrating development in the health care debate.

A PARTICULARLY disgusting new wrinkle has emerged in congressional health care reform debates: Republicans and conservative Democrats are latching onto abortion access as a new wedge to drive proposed health care reform even further from the project of providing quality health care to more Americans.

Like the president's public assurances that federal health reform would certainly not cover any of our nation's millions of undocumented immigrants, this discussion began with Democratic capitulation to congressional conservatives.

The proposed health care reform now being debated in congress has never proposed to disrupt a 30-year ban on federal funding for abortion. No one on Capital Hill has dared to whisper that this crucial aspect of women's health care should in fact be protected and promoted through federal subsidy, much less that protecting women's health and rights deserves a place in this pivotal legislative debate.

Nonetheless, anti-choice legislators are worried. While insurance providers are legally required to keep separate accounts for their privately funded coverage of abortions, and even though only about half of all private insurance policies cover abortions, conservatives argue that extending access to more health insurance coverage will indirectly subsidize access to plans that cover elective abortion.

Several senators, including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, recently lost an effort to amend the proposed health care bill to exclude insurance that also happens to cover elective abortions through private funding--by just one vote. But the right-wing uproar over abortion access rages on.

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IF DEMOCRATIC and Republican conservatives are successful in restricting subsidies, the private insurers who currently provide abortion coverage would be pressed to drop a woman's right to choose abortion from their plans.

As if a federal ban on subsidies for abortion services were not bad enough, such a measure would actually allow legislators to wield federal tax dollars as leverage to reduce abortion access. This crosses a line that ought to be called out as the unconstitutional contradiction of the Roe v. Wade decision that it is.

Instead, more liberal and leading Democrats have largely been mute on the subject. Nancy Pelosi recently met with Rep. Bart Stupak, one of the most vociferous Democrats pushing for restriction of federal subsidies, to "listen to their concerns," and to make "progress."

And Stupak is also glowing because of the input he received from President Obama: a phone call urging Stupak to work out this disagreement among fellow Democrats in a timely manner to avoid slowing passage of the overall health reform bill. Stupak noted that Obama did not state a preference for or against amendments to restrict subsidies, but did demonstrate the debate "got his attention, which we never had before."

This debate threatens women on two fronts. For one thing, legal attacks on abortion access come at a time in which women's right to abortion is already under political siege.

From the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller last spring, to the "40 Days For Life" campaign recently initiated by bigots planning to picket many of our nation’s few remaining abortion clinics, the need to defend women's fundamental political rights is more urgent than ever. Instead, congressional debates in which the right attacks abortion and the Democrats put up no defense are potentially adding fuel to the fire of right-wing confidence to take vigilante action.

Secondly, this debate further distorts the truth about abortion--that abortion is a simple medical procedure. Yet recent proposed amendments to HR 3200, a bill that claims to reform health care by extending access to more Americans, threaten to strip coverage of a vital health care procedure from millions of women.

In the clear absence of any defense of abortion rights by Democratic or Republican politicians, it falls to ordinary women and men, like those leading clinic defenses in New York City and Los Angeles, to revive a fighting grassroots movement that declares: Abortion is health care--health care is a right!