Trading Women’s Rights for Political Power
By Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling
A grim reality sits behind the joyful press statements from Washington Democrats. To secure passage of health care legislation in the House, the party chose a course that risks the well-being of millions of women for generations to come.
House Democrats voted to expand the current ban on public financing for abortion and to effectively prohibit women who participate in the proposed health system from obtaining private insurance that covers the full range of reproductive health options. Political calculation aside, the House Democrats reinforced the principle that a minority view on the morality of abortion can determine reproductive health policy for American women.
Many House members who support abortion rights decided reluctantly to accept this ban, which is embodied in the Stupak-Pitts amendment. They say the tradeoff was necessary to advance the right to guaranteed health care. They say they will fight another day for a woman’s right to choose.
Perhaps. But they can’t ignore the underlying shift that has taken place in recent years. The Democratic majority has abandoned its platform and subordinated women’s health to short-term political success. In doing so, these so-called friends of women’s rights have arguably done more to undermine reproductive rights than some of abortion’s staunchest foes. That Senate Democrats are poised to allow similar anti-abortion language in their bill simply underscores the degree of the damage that has been done.
Many women — ourselves included — warned the Democratic Party in 2004 that it was a mistake to build a Congressional majority by recruiting and electing candidates opposed to the party’s commitment to legal abortion and to public financing for the procedure. Instead, the lust for power yielded to misguided, self-serving poll analysis by operatives with no experience in the fight for these principles. They mistakenly believed that giving leadership roles to a small minority of anti-abortion Democrats would solve the party’s image problems with “values voters” and answer critics who claimed Democrats were hostile to religion.
Democrats were told to stop talking about abortion as a moral and legal right and to focus instead on comforting language about reducing the number of abortions. In this regard, President Obama was right on message when he declared in his health care speech to Congress in September that “under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions” — as if this happened to be a good and moral thing. (The tone of his statement made the point even more sharply than his words.)
The party has distanced itself from the abortion-rights movement in other ways. It has taken to calling Democrats who oppose a woman’s right to choose “pro-life” (and not “anti-choice”). The group Democrats for Life of America, whose Congressional members ultimately led the battle to exclude private insurance companies that cover abortions from health insurance exchanges, was invited to hold a press conference in Democratic Party offices. The party has promoted “pro-life progressives” like Sojourners, Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, organizations whose leaders have stated that abortions should be made “more difficult to get.”
This, then, is where we stand as party leaders celebrate passage of the House bill. When it comes to abortion, they seem to think all positions are of equal value so long as the party maintains a majority. But the party will eventually reap what it has sown. If Democrats do not commit themselves to defeating the amendment, then they will face an uncompromising effort by Democratic women to defeat them, regardless of the cost to the party’s precious majority.
In the meantime, the victims of their folly will be the millions of women who once could count on the Democratic Party to protect them from those who would sacrifice their rights for political gains.
This article appears as an op-ed in the Nov. 12, 2009, New York Times. Kate Michelman is the former president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Frances Kissling is the former president of Catholics for Choice.