Opponents of abortion in Congress are nothing if not persistent. After trying to defund Planned Parenthood and Title X, our nation’s family planning program, and successfully reinstating a ban on the District of Columbia using its own money to fund abortion care, they will soon vote on H.R. 3, the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act.”
How will pro-choice politicians respond?
Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York, a staunch defender of abortion rights, has noted that “we’re in a tense peace on [abortion funding] in that we’re an anti-choice Congress in a pro-choice country. And so we’ve worked out this kind of cold [war] peace treaty that I’m not happy about, and I think none of us are happy about.”
That sums up how most pro-choice leaders seem to view federal restrictions on abortion funding, often referred to as “the Hyde Amendment”—as an unfortunate but necessary compromise that allows abortion to remain legal and relatively available but denies federal funding for the service in most cases.
The question pro-choice politicians must answer now is: What kind of peace have you bought?
The supposed abortion détente comes at a huge cost to the most vulnerable women—those who are poor, minority, young, and rural. Moreover, this peace treaty is honored by only one side. While the pro-choice camp repeatedly communicates its grudging acceptance of abortion funding restrictions, this never stops abortion opponents from raising the issue any chance they get. Nor does it keep them from trying to enlarge the scope of the anti-federal funding policy or make these limits permanent.
Indeed, after imposing new restrictions on abortion coverage in private health insurance plans through health reform, they are now pushing H.R. 3. With that bill, they want to completely eradicate abortion insurance coverage from the new health insurance exchanges that will be set up in 2014 under the health reform law, make abortion funding restrictions government-wide and permanent, and use the tax code for the very first time to punish those who pay for abortion care or coverage. They also initially tried to redefine rape and incest exceptions out of existence.
If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be now—whatever détente there was has been broken. Abortion opponents on the Hill have crossed the line and are pursuing a scorched-earth strategy that will not be turned back without a full fight.
So what’s a good pro-choice leader to do?
First, stop referring to the Hyde Amendment as an “historic compromise” or “settled law.” Such language only reinforces the misconception that abortion funding restrictions are necessary and proper. They are not. And agreements not to change the abortion “status quo” pertained solely to health reform.
Second, fight attempts to codify or expand current abortion funding restrictions. Too many women for too long have been denied coverage for a legitimate and legal health care service. Enough is enough.
Finally, mount a full-throated defense of public funding for abortion—or rather of comprehensive health care that includes abortion coverage, regardless of the funding source. After all, ensuring that women have the same access to health care no matter how it is funded is what is really at stake.
It may not be popular right now to support government funding for abortion. But the only way to change public opinion is by speaking out. Failing to make principled arguments in support of abortion coverage in federal programs means that the American public does not have the opportunity to learn about the issue and change its mind.
The only way to fight fire is with fire. Reasonable minds might approach this disagreement another way, but unfortunately reasonable minds are not sitting across the negotiating table. Unless pro-choice politicians step up to defend abortion funding now, this same fight will be repeated over and over, but with less and less room to maneuver each time. Standing up for abortion funding is not only the right thing to do; it is the only way to move forward.
Jessica Arons is the director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.