Success in any long-running campaign breeds complacency; first euphoria, then relief, later forgetfulness. Whether the campaign for universal suffrage or the crusade to curb childhood disease through immunizations, success leads to historical amnesia.
That’s certainly true of the decades-long battle for reproductive rights, another chapter in women’s never-ending struggle to achieve full personhood. Because the U.S. Supreme Court granted women the right to control their own reproduction in a 1973 ruling, Roe v Wade, forty-something Americans have no first-hand knowledge of back alley abortions. It’s likely they haven’t even heard second-hand stories of women who died from infections caused by coat-hanger terminations.
That helps explain why advocates for reproductive rights weren’t prepared for an all-out battle just to allow women to retain their health insurance coverage. It also helps explain why pro-choice Democrats found themselves outmaneuvered by U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan), who sponsored an amendment to health care reform legislation which would sharply limit abortions.
“I think quite honestly it’s the complacency of having a pro-choice president and the perception of a pro-choice majority in Congress,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Nancy Keenan said in an interview last week.
“But I think that complacency was rocked to its core” by Stupak’s restrictions, she added, on her way to Capitol Hill to lobby against the restrictions. “It was a wake-up call that there is a constant attack on women’s reproductive rights.”
Stupak contends that his amendment, which was included in the health care legislation the House adopted two weeks ago, only maintains the status quo, a prohibition against federal funding for abortions. In reality, his amendment goes much further, discouraging private insurance companies from offering coverage for abortions, even if women want to purchase those policies with their own funds.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive issues, coverage for abortions is common-place in the private health insurance market. So Stupak and his colleagues would do what they promised not to do: They would prevent consumers from keeping insurance with which they are satisfied.
Keenan’s organization has already sent a petition with more than 97,000 signatures to the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, warning against adopting Stupak’s highly restrictive language in the Senate bill. It’s no surprise that those signatures materialized so quickly. Women and their advocates are highly motivated and well-organized, as evidenced by the uproar over new guidelines for mammograms.
But unlike the advocates for breast cancer treatment, proponents of reproductive rights battle a problem of perception. No one argues that breast cancer is a disease requiring treatment. Pregnancy, however, provokes a wide range of reactions — and the decision to end one stirs controversy, sometimes among family and friends. Despite the fact that abortion remains a legal medical procedure, its opponents would argue that it doesn’t constitute legitimate health care.
That view springs from ignorance or callousness (or both). Let’s say a 40-year-old mother of three finds herself unexpectedly pregnant again. Since she suffers severe hypertension, her physician advises her against taking the pregnancy to term because she’d risk a stroke or worse. That’s not medical care?
Keenan points out that women need a full range of reproductive services — including pre-natal care, contraception and abortion services. Indeed, an emphasis on contraception would reduce unintended pregnancies, thereby curbing abortions.
Recession-strapped families are wary of having additional children, according to the Guttmacher Institute, but many women have lost employer-provided insurance and are having to skip purchasing contraceptives because they are short of cash. Those families that simply can’t afford additional children are likely to scrape up the cash for an abortion, if it comes to that.
That’s why health insurance reform which supports a wide range of reproductive services is sensible policy. Stupak, who is firmly anti-abortion, may not agree with that, but a lot of more moderate voices will.