Nowhere to Hyde
The months of debate and politicking around the healthcare overhaul provided a glimpse of the political strength of the prochoice movement that hasn't been possible for years. The picture that emerged wasn't pretty, as supporters of choice found that they don't have the influence many assumed they did. Almost as soon as the reform process began, abortion rights became a bargaining chip. And after the frenzied horse-trading that finally produced a law, women across the country were left with less access to the procedure and a seriously weakened power base from which to protect and advocate for abortion rights.
"It's an enormous setback," says Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
How did an invigorated prochoice movement, still pumped up from Democratic victories in 2008, wind up shafted?
For many, the loss was as unexpected as it was disappointing. Obama's election had instilled a sense of political safety. For the first time since Bill Clinton was in office, there was a Democratic majority in both houses and a prochoice president. After the dark period of the Bush years, when prochoice advocates' best hope was to minimize their losses, long-shelved goals suddenly felt possible. The most optimistic set their sights on getting rid of the Hyde Amendment, the 1976 provision that forbids the use of federal funds to pay for abortion in most cases.
"Many of us in the reproductive justice community were looking for a huge leap forward with Obama," says Lois Uttley, co-founder of Raising Women's Voices, a national initiative devoted to making sure women's concerns are addressed by healthcare reform. "We really hoped that we might actually be able to make some progress in overturning Hyde."
Because of Hyde, poor women in most of the country have had to scrounge for the money to pay for abortions (though seventeen states now have laws allowing Medicaid dollars to be spent for most medically necessary abortions). While the majority of poor women who can't get Medicaid to pay for their abortions still go through with the procedure, somewhere between 18 and 37 percent continue their pregnancies, according to research by the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that does research and policy analysis on reproductive health.
Yet, in the past year and a half, instead of abolishing Hyde and convincing the country that current policy amounts to discrimination against poor women, Uttley and others wound up looking on in dismay as Obama's top legislative priority, healthcare reform, ensnared and ultimately set back abortion rights generally--and funding for abortion in particular. In order to win the support of antichoice Democrats and save the bill, the Obama administration embraced the principle of Hyde, signing into law a bill that, in the words of Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, "goes far beyond current law by placing unreasonable burdens on those who want to either offer or purchase private health insurance coverage for abortion." Desperate to keep healthcare reform alive, even prochoice groups found themselves defending the public-funding ban they so despised. "The most damaging thing about healthcare reform is that even our prochoice leadership has been, through no fault of their own, reinforcing Hyde," says Laura MacCleery, director of government relations and communications for the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The compromise on abortion coverage that became law was only slightly less odious than the Stupak Amendment, which, to the horror of prochoicers, passed the House in a 240-194 vote on November 7, and would have prevented any health plan that receives federal money from paying for abortions. Politically, the Stupak vote laid bare the fact that there simply aren't enough people willing to go to bat for abortion in Congress. The resounding vote count, coming late on a Saturday evening after hours of back-room scheming, was no surprise to Washington insiders on both sides of the issue. They already knew what would soon become plain to everyone else: a Democratic majority is not the same as a prochoice majority. And many Democrats who entered Congress in the past few elections not only oppose abortion but will work as a bloc to stand in its way.
In fact, the Democratic majority in the House that many found so comforting in the last election was largely won by the party's decision to embrace socially conservative candidates, including opponents of abortion. Consider some of the recently elected House Democrats who voted for Stupak. Heath Shuler, who represents western North Carolina and beat a Republican incumbent in 2006, has, along with Bart Stupak, lived in the Washington residence owned by the religious organization The Family. On every occasion possible, Shuler has voted against choice. He even opposed the international distribution of condoms, as did his friend Brad Ellsworth, an Indiana House member who defeated a six-term Republican incumbent and opposes abortion and stem cell research. Then there's Kathy Dahlkemper from Pennsylvania, another Democrat who knocked out a Republican incumbent, in 2008. Dahlkemper has spoken on the House floor about how her own unintended pregnancy shaped her opposition to abortion.
In all, sixty-four House Democrats voted for the Stupak Amendment, most of them representing conservative districts where many constituents are uncomfortable with the notion of public funding for abortion. A 2009 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center suggests that this critical antichoice demographic may be growing. Not only did the poll document less support for abortion overall than in previous years; it also found one of the biggest increases in opposition to be among white, non-Hispanic Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly, a description that fits Bart Stupak and many of his constituents.
Democratic opposition to abortion has traditionally come in what some Congress-watchers refer to as the "Harry Reid model," since the Senate majority leader, though antichoice, has been noticeably levelheaded, willing to work with others on the issue, and clear about his support for contraception and services for women and children. By contrast, after the vote on Stupak, it became clear that some House Democrats were ideologues in the fiery Republican mold, just as hardline as some of their colleagues across the aisle.
Indeed, Stupak managed to wrest the role of chief abortion opponent in healthcare reform from the Republicans, overtaking them in self-serving histrionics and sheer drama (though Randy Neugebauer, a Republican Congressman from Texas, helped Republicans reclaim their rightful position as the party of heckling wackos when he screamed out "Baby killer!" on the House floor as Stupak was defending the reform bill). Stupak insisted that his willingness to hijack the entire healthcare reform process was a matter of principle. But his resistance to efforts to honestly resolve funding questions after his initial stand showed him to be primarily concerned about drawing attention--both to the issue and himself. (Obama played his part in this charade. If his last-minute executive order had any function, it was to be a face-saver for Stupak, who ultimately signed on to reform. Instead of restating what the bill already said, the decree might as well have read: "For Bart Stupak, for being a really important player in healthcare reform. Really.")