Round Two: The Coming Battle Over Abortion Funding | The Nation


Round Two: The Coming Battle Over Abortion Funding

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"It was as though women, while we turned out the vote, were useless," says Frances Kissling, a visiting fellow at the Center for Bioethics and the former president of Catholics for Choice. As Kissling sees it, health reform was a chance for women to once again have a say and prove themselves as political players--which, paradoxically, meant limiting their demands. "There was this enormous feeling that if health care failed because of abortion, on our side, we would be blamed," says Kissling. "And then we would never get out of the hole of not being important."

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Sharon Lerner
Sharon Lerner
Sharon Lerner (@fastlerner) is a longtime contributor to The Nation. Her reporting focuses on health, education...

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But if being reasonable let women keep a seat at the table, the cost of that seat was soon apparent. By the time Saturday night was upon them, the Catholic bishops were already in a position to control the debate. Though only ten House members who supported health reform were wedded to the antiabortion language, this particular handful, who had been unyielding, wound up in control. Escalating threats from Church had positioned them to put their feet down at the last minute--and they did.

The political tactics that achieved this unlikely feat were, in contrast to those of women's groups, decidedly not reasonable. The United State Conference of Catholic Bishops were clear they would oppose the entire bill--services for little children, the elderly and all--if the Stupak amendment didn't go for a vote. They even littered church pews with memos urging parishioners to call Washington and distributed talking points to be thrown into Sunday sermons. The USCCB's statement was clear that the bishops wouldn't let anyone stand in their way--even their own people. ("If your Arch/bishop is not in agreement with disseminating the bulletin insert, you will be hearing from his office immediately," threatened an e-mail blast.)

Women's groups stayed away from such gamesmanship, choosing not to oppose, or even threaten to oppose, the reform bill because it promised other important steps forward, including a chance for so many low-income women to get coverage, and a prohibition on charging women more simply because they're women. "There is so much in the health reform bill that's good for women," says Lois Uttley of Raising Women's Voices, adding that women's groups were only "part of a coalition that wanted to get health reform passed."

To some, this was a matter of integrity. "We're not the bishops. This is not the 1960s, this isn't a time where we're going to become people like that, who really don't care about anything else," says the National Women's Law Center's Waxman. "Our agenda includes the poor and educational opportunities."

Should women pretend to be willing to oppose health reform, even if, in their hearts, they are not? "I don't want to get down in the gutter with our opponents," says Laura MacCleery of the Center for Reproductive Rights. Though, of course, the bishops emerged from that gutter with a big victory. (Perhaps this is what emboldened them to threaten to stop providing social services in the District of Columbia if the city didn't back away from marriage equality legislation.)

Perhaps being more vocal about what they really wanted, more aggressive in their politics, would have given women more room to maneuver with the House bill and averted the last-minute debacle. On the other hand, they might have lost their position from which to negotiate altogether. It's impossible to know. Whatever the answer, prochoice groups clearly must rock the boat this time around.

To their credit, NARAL and Planned Parenthood are have already shown their willingness to do what's necessary to win this next round. They have threatened to withhold funding from Ciro Rodriguez and Harry Teague, the two members of Congress who got money from the groups in the last election cycle and proceeded to vote for Stupak anyway. And Planned Parenthood has announced its intentions to pull its support from any reform bill that includes Stupak.

There's more hardball to be played. These groups, along with the prochoice PAC EMILY's List, could announce that they'll "score" a vote for a healthcare bill that contains abortion restrictions like the Stupak amendment as an antichoice vote, for instance. That's important because these lobbying organizations use their scores to determine which legislators gets their money--and how much. (Planned Parenthood and NARAL have not yet decided how to score votes on health reform bills that contain antiabortion provisions, though NARAL's policy director, Donna Crane said, "That's a very serious question being discussed in our organization." EMILY's List has not returned calls.)

To win, prochoice groups have to use all the money and political power they can harness to get what they want. It won't be pretty. And this time, if further restrictions on abortion funding make it into law, prochoice groups will have given it their all.

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