Comprehensive Health Care Reform – Unless You’re a Woman

On Saturday night, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 220-215 to overhaul the health care system in the United States. Media outlets are framing this as a victory for progressives, and to be sure, some elements of the bill will be helpful in the long run. But the Stupak amendment, which was attached to the bill at the last minute on Saturday and was approved by a vote of 240-194, makes this bill a setback for women’s equality.

The amendment reads:

No funds authorized or appropriated by this Act (or an amendment made to this Act) may be used to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion, except in the case where a woman suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness that would, as certified by a physician, place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion is performed, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, or unless the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.

This cripples women’s access to abortion in several ways:

The provision would apply only to insurance policies purchased with the federal subsidies that the health legislation would create to help low- and middle-income people, and to policies sold by a government-run insurance plan that would be created by the legislation.

Abortion rights advocates charged Sunday that the provision threatened to deprive women of abortion coverage because insurers would drop the procedure from their plans in order to sell them in the newly expanded market of people receiving subsidies. The subsidized market would be large because anyone earning less than $88,000 for a family of four — four times the poverty level — would be eligible for a subsidy under the House bill. Women who received subsidies or public insurance could still pay out of pocket for the procedure. Or they could buy separate insurance riders to cover abortion, though some evidence suggests few would, in part because unwanted pregnancies are by their nature unexpected.

Abortion is fundamental to women’s equality. It’s that simple. Without the ability to decide when and if to have children, women will never be able to control their destinies as men have been able to do for centuries. Contraception is available – though not as widely as you may think – but abortion must also be available, it must be accessible, and it must be affordable.

Over half of the women seeking abortions in the United States were using contraception at the time of their pregnancy. The Hyde Amendment – which looks strikingly similar to the Stupak amendment above and which bars the use of federal funds for abortions for women on Medicaid – has forced women who would have terminated their pregnancies to carry them to term.

To carve out this specific procedure which is so crucial to women’s autonomy and deny coverage for it – even for women who buy their own insurance with their own money – is unacceptable. And even as they spoke out against it, supporters of women’s rights voted for the final bill:

“If enacted, this amendment will be the greatest restriction of a woman’s right to choose to pass in our careers,” said Representative Diana DeGette, Democrat of Colorado, one of the lawmakers who left Ms. Pelosi’s office mad.

Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, said the bill’s original language barring the use of federal dollars to pay for abortions should have been sufficient for the opponents. “Abortion is a matter of conscience on both sides of the debate,” Ms. DeLauro said. “This amendment takes away that same freedom of conscience from America’s women. It prohibits them from access to an abortion even if they pay for it with their own money. It invades women’s personal decisions.”

But Ms. DeGette, Ms. DeLauro and other defenders of abortion rights said they would nonetheless vote in favor of the health care bill and fight for changes in the final version, to be negotiated with the Senate.

We hope that the final version of the bill, after the Senate votes on it, will not include this restrictive provision on abortion coverage, and that supporters of women’s rights in Congress will not allow women’s equality to be hijacked as legislation moves forward. We will work as hard as we can to ensure that this doesn’t happen and hope you will too. The rights hanging in the balance are too crucial to women’s equality to do otherwise.

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One Response to Comprehensive Health Care Reform – Unless You’re a Woman

  1. Pingback: Update on Abortion Access in Healthcare Reform « Women's Law Project Blog

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