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Abortion Rights Groups Now Oppose House Health Care Bill

Stephanie Condon

The passage of comprehensive health care legislation in the House of Representatives Saturday night was bittersweet for many liberal supporters of reform, and profoundly disturbing for those primarily concerned about the right to have an abortion.

The inclusion of Rep. Bart Stupak's restrictive abortion amendment in the bill has prompted well-established abortion-rights groups to oppose the entire House bill, and it is drawing the ire of feminist bloggers and activists. Pro-abortion rights members of Congress are also attempting to derail the final passage of any bill that includes the Stupak amendment. Yet as the Democrats' reform package teeters between success and failure -- with just a few more votes needed to kill the bill -- it remains to be seen whether leaders will risk stripping out the amendment, which was added to win over conservative Democrats.

The Stupak amendment passed on the House floor Saturday with the support of 64 Democrats -- of whom 62 were men, liberal bloggers have been quick to point out.

The provision would prevent women who receive subsidies to purchase insurance that covers abortion -- inside or outside of the proposed national health insurance exchange. It would also explicitly ban abortion coverage from the government-run plan, or "public option." While it does not explicitly prohibit private plans on the exchange from offering abortion coverage, insurers would have little incentive to offer abortion coverage, since most customers on the exchange would pay with subsidies.

"Abortion is a matter of conscience on both sides of the debate," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). "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."

Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Louise M. Slaughter (D-N.Y.) released the text of a letter today to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that says, "We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women's right to choose any further than current law."

The congresswomen claim to have more than 40 signatures collected for the letter so far, though the signatures have not yet been released.

Meanwhile, abortion-rights groups are stepping up to pressure President Obama and the Senate to keep the measure out of the final health care bill. The National Organization for Women held a rally at the Capitol today in opposition to the amendment and is fundraising to lobby on the issue. The group opposes the entire House health care bill because of the amendment.

"We cannot and will not support a health care bill that strips millions of women of their existing access to abortion," NOW President Terry O'Neill said in a statement. "NOW calls on the Senate to pass a health care bill that respects women's constitutionally protected right to abortion and calls on President Obama to refuse to sign any health care bill that restricts women's access to affordable, quality reproductive health care."

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards also said in a statement that, "On behalf of the millions of women Planned Parenthood health centers serve, the Planned Parenthood Federation of America has no choice but to oppose HR 3962."

The organization sent out an e-mail to its supporters on Monday, asking them to send President Obama a message to "to live up to his campaign commitment and stand with us to protect women's health care."

Yet while Planned Parenthood now opposes the House bill, the organization must tread carefully to promote reproductive rights without sabotaging a health care bill they would otherwise find generally beneficial. In addition to lobbying for reproductive rights with its political action committee, Planned Parenthood runs health care clinics throughout the country. This puts the organization in a tight spot, much like the supporters of abortion rights who voted against the Stupak amendment but for the passage of the bill.

Laurie Rubiner, Planned Parenthood's vice president of public policy, declined to say whether her organization would consider a vote in favor of the bill as an vote against abortion rights on its congressional scorecard.

"We've got a long way to go before we get there," Rubiner told the Hotsheet. "Planned Parenthood is a provider of health care services to 3 million women, and we're focused on getting the Stupak amendment out so we can deliver affordable, quality care."


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Rubiner said Planned Parenthood thinks the chances are very good that the Senate will include more favorable abortion language in its bill, which could prevail over the House language in conference committee.

"The Senate has always been a cooling off place," Rubiner said. "I don't see in any reason to engage in brinksmanship at this point. This is about getting the best bill we can and making sure women aren't left worse off than they were before."

Similarly, NARAL Pro-Choice America says it is now focusing on defeating any attempt to add the Stupak amendment to the Senate bill. The organization will at least attempt to hold lawmakers accountable for the Stupak amendment with its congressional scorecard, which will take into account who voted in favor of the amendment.

"We opposed the Stupak-Pitts amendment and scored that vote, which means we will hold those lawmakers who voted for this measure accountable for abandoning women and capitulating to extreme factions of the anti-choice movement," Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL, told the Hotsheet.

Some advocates are suggesting a more hardline approach with the Democratic caucus.

A blogger on the liberal grassroots site FireDogLake wrote an article headlined, "Stupak Amendment Passes; 64 Dems Ask for Primary Opponents."

"It's a fundamental part of our belief system in the Democratic Party, that women have a right to privacy in their reproductive health care decisions," Rayne wrote.

Similarly, radio host Allison Kilkenny noted on Huffington Post that some of the same Democrats who favored the Stupak amendment also voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, making them prime targets for primary challenges.

"If it goes to war like a Republican, and votes against women's rights like a Republican... I can't wait for the primaries," she wrote.

Ann Friedman, deputy editor of The American Prospect, suggested on the blog ways feminists could push back. For instance, she suggested making a donation to an abortion rights group rather than President Obama.

The amendment, she wrote, "sets apart women's rights from the Democratic/progressive/whatever agenda. As something expendable. But fundamental rights for women are not peripheral... Seeing as how the Democratic party relies on women voters to win elections, you would think they would have come around to this no-brainer by now."

Some more squarely pinned the blame on the president.

"Let's be honest. It was Pres. Obama who opened the door to sell us out when he decided to put the Hyde Amendment in the budget, something Bill Clinton never did," political analyst Taylor Marsh wrote at the Huffington Post. "Right now every woman who values her civil rights should understand how the gay community feels. Democrats just sold us out too."

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