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Healthcare Reform: One Step Forward for America; One Step Back for Women’s Rights

March 21, 2010

The following statement may be attributed to Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice.

At the outset of the debate over healthcare reform, leaders in the Democratic Party made a number of promises to the American people.

President Obama told us that he was “not restricting women’s insurance choices,” and promised that “if you’re happy and satisfied with the insurance that you have, it’s not going to change.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “There is no change in the access to abortion, no more, no less. It is abortion neutral.”

President Obama said, “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.”

Ever since the election, the Democratic Party has said that it would rely on evidence-based policies to reduce the need for abortion and the incidence of sexually transmitted infections. In yet another broken promise, this time to America’s youth, the Democrats have agreed to refund abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education policies. The party leadership caved to pressure from the conservatives within its own ranks in giving taxpayer money to programs that do not work.

Now, to add insult to injury, President Obama has agreed at the last moment to issue an Executive Order that extended the antichoice elements of this already restrictive law. He extended refusal rights of a kind that he had previously denounced when they were introduced by President George W. Bush. He also extended the Hyde Amendment, which bans all federal funding of abortion, to the newly-created health insurance exchanges.

In short, we were assured that nobody would be worse off under a reformed system.  On each of these points, the American people have been misled.

That is not to say the bill does not improve the healthcare situation for many millions of women and their families. Catholics for Choice believes that providing healthcare is a matter of social justice and we have been a strong supporter of comprehensive healthcare reform so that those with no coverage or inadequate coverage can afford and receive the care they need. Improvements in this plan include prohibiting pre-existing condition exclusions for children as well as prohibiting the arbitrary dropping of people from coverage when they get sick or their healthcare costs too much. It makes it easier on small businesses to purchase coverage for their employees, eliminates limits on coverage and allows dependent children to stay covered under their parents’ policy until age 26.  The legislation also requires new plans to cover preventive services and immunizations. These are all positive steps in fixing a broken healthcare system.

But let us be clear that reforming the health insurance system has led to a significant tightening of restrictions on coverage for abortions. Both sides had a tacit agreement that the battle over healthcare reform would not become a battle over abortion. However, the Congressional Democratic leadership allowed the antichoice lobby to amend the final legislation with the result that it will be almost impossible to get coverage for abortions, even with one’s own money.  The Democratic Party has a prochoice platform, yet its leaders chose to deal away women’s rights in order to pass a law that is supposed to improve healthcare. Shame on them.

The Republican Party has reneged on its responsibility to be a partner in governing this country. Having decided at the outset that it would oppose reform, we have heard the same broken record from all of its members and representatives. The reactionary rhetoric about healthcare reform in general and coverage for abortion in particular does not represent the totality of views that exist within the Republican Party. We know that there are prochoice Republicans and that many Americans who vote Republican are prochoice. It is intensely disappointing that these elected representatives, who lay claim to the mantle of being “courageous” and “independent-minded,” have not shown the leadership to stand up for American women and state their opposition to the lies that emerged from their leadership about this legislation. Shame on them.

By their actions, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has shown a myopic obsession with abortion to the exclusion of the social justice issues about which Catholic people are concerned. The bishops claimed that they were i) in favor of healthcare reform, ii) did not want this bill to extend coverage for abortion and iii) in favor of extending coverage to undocumented immigrants. However, when it came to the end game, the bishops decided that their opposition to abortion was more important than everything else. It was on the basis of their extremist and dishonest interpretation of the sections on abortion that the bishops decided that they would oppose passage of the bill. In so doing, they proved that rather than being leaders for social justice and advocates for the poor and marginalized, they were marching in lockstep alongside the most extremist fringe in the antichoice lobby. Shame on them.

The American people have been misled throughout this process by politicians and the US bishops whose own goals have not gelled with the best interests of those they represent. There has been a litany of broken promises about what we could expect from healthcare reform. Some have deliberately tried to obfuscate the facts about what the bill actually did, most notably over coverage for abortion. While some continue to beat the drum that fixes are still possible to curb or even revoke the restrictions on insurance coverage for abortion, nothing that has happened in the process thus far has given American women hope that this is anything more than political hype.

After passage of this bill, poor women will still be poor. Some pregnant women will still need abortions. And poor pregnant women who need abortions will still need help paying for those abortions. We at Catholics for Choice and our allies in the reproductive rights community have a renewed commitment to ensuring that women can access the services they need. We will pursue with vigor our attempts to ensure that all those services are covered. Our political leaders may suffer electorally as a result of this process. The Catholic bishops who abandoned their credentials as advocates for the poor and marginalized can reflect in their own time on how they abandoned their principles. In the meantime, our commitment to fight for American women who struggle for the ability to exercise their reproductive choices is reinvigorated.