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Firm stance on abortion rights needed

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) continues to languish in a standoff fueled by politicians more concerned with undermining abortion rights than helping trafficking survivors. At issue: a restriction that parrots a measure known as the Hyde Amendment, which limits Medicaid coverage of abortion for those struggling to make ends meet, inserted (some say snuck) into the otherwise bipartisan bill by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

For those who recall an eleventh-hour bait and switch by antiabortion lawmakers on the eve of the Roe anniversary, this is starting to look like a pattern. Indeed, details have emerged that Republicans also added the Hyde policy to statutory language regarding funding for community health centers in a bill meant to fix Medicare reimbursements to doctors. Are we to expect covert attacks on abortion in every piece of legislation now that abortion opponents control both chambers of Congress?

{mosads}In many ways, this behavior is nothing new. As long as their efforts to criminalize abortion continue to fail, antiabortion lawmakers will keep working toward their secondary goal of cutting off access and making every woman pay for abortion care entirely out of pocket, in an attempt to put it out of reach for all but the most affluent women.

For years, conservatives have staked out a hard-right position on abortion, especially the issue of affordability, and built from there. While some conservatives have argued for a more tempered approach, many have not cared if they looked radical or lost votes on bills. What they have cared about—and succeeded in doing—is moving the public discourse in their direction.

Here’s how they do it: First, introduce legislation that includes everything they want. Then, introduce miniature versions of the omnibus bill. Next, hold a hearing, then a mark-up, then a floor vote. Use the process to test the temperature of the public and get a read on what provisions meet the most resistance.

The only thing novel about the latest tactic is that they are attaching abortion restrictions to other, unrelated bills. And if they win the JVTA battle, they will have moved the needle in their direction in two small but significant ways: 1) writing an abortion funding restriction into permanent law versus using appropriations measures that must be reapproved each year, and 2) limiting the use of funds for abortion care when those revenues come from penalties instead of taxes. Yes the victories would be incremental, but they would be successes nonetheless.

Conservatives have learned that if they play the long game and keep pushing their agenda—and especially if progressives fail to push back—their ideas gradually become more acceptable and their measures eventually become law.

Progressives, in contrast, have typically followed the opposite approach, avoiding taking a strong stance on abortion coverage for fear of rebuke. In the face of proposed restrictions, they have usually remained silent or offered concessions to appear reasonable, even as the definition of “reasonable” continues to shift rightward.

Often they have said federal law “already bans taxpayer funding for abortion,” instead of pointing out that coverage restrictions are a deliberate attempt to interfere with women’s personal decisions. In short, they have debated the issue on conservative terms and reinforced their opposition’s frame until they are completely locked within it.

But that dynamic, if the JVTA fight is any indication, may finally be changing. Abortion-rights proponents have pushed back hard against the Cornyn provision, keeping a filibuster going with no signs of letting up.

While that response is certainly encouraging, it is still reactive. As long as pro-choice champions remain on defense, their energy will be spent holding the line rather than working to eliminate the existing restrictions that withhold abortion coverage from millions of women and deny them access to the health care they need.

Progressive lawmakers must move from pro-choice to pro-coverage, offering proactive legislation to cover abortion care for all women regardless of their income, source of insurance or where they live. By articulating their vision in an omnibus bill, individual standalone measures and smaller pieces of other bills, pro-coverage members can set the terms of the debate, make the case for their position and put abortion opponents on the defensive instead.

As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said during the JVTA debate, this is “one battle that we can win.  We have had loss after loss after loss… I see it as standing up for principle. And you know principle doesn’t know minority and majority; principle is deeply held.”

While it is a shame that a bill to support survivors of trafficking has been delayed by antiabortion politics, standing on principle is exactly what’s needed to ensure that any legislation, now or in the future, that funds health care services does not harm the very population it’s meant to help.

Arons is the president & CEO of the Reproductive Health Technologies Project. For a longer treatment of this subject, see the author’s recent article in the Democracy Journal.


Tags Dianne Feinstein John Cornyn

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