The number one mistake anyone can make when dealing with anti-choice activists is to take them at their word. Believing that they’re in this strictly because abortion itself offends them, and seeking ways to reduce access to abortion? Reproductive rights activists would be the first in line to tell you that’s never going to work. And if you stick around and listen to reproductive rights activists dispensing advice, the second thing we’d tell you is that people who enjoy going to clinics to yell at patients live for opportunities to harass people, and you’d be much better off avoiding them in the first place. If anti-abortion House Democrats had actually listened to this advice, they wouldn’t be facing the situation they’re in now.
Politico is reporting that a cadre of anti-choice groups, led by the misnamed Susan B. Anthony List, have taken to dumping millions of dollars into advertisements and a bus tour opposing anti-choice House Democrats who voted for health care reform after restrictions were attached that dramatically reduced women’s access to insurance coverage for abortion. Naturally, said Democrats are feeling betrayed. Politico quoted Rep. Kathy Delkamper, an anti-abortion Democrat who voted for the health care reform bill:
“It’s been extremely frustrating at times,” Dahlkemper told POLITICO. “All along, I have donated. I have marched. I have been an unmarried pregnant woman who chose life. I have lived this. Now I’m 52, and in the last six months, all of a sudden, people are questioning who I am.”
I imagine that it’s doubly frustrating because the anti-abortion Democrats gave the anti-choice movement what they said they wanted: a federal rule that makes it impossible for a single red cent of taxpayer money to go towards elective abortion. They even did them one better, by getting an executive order that will make it likely that insurance companies that currently offer abortion coverage will simply drop it. They gave the anti-choice movement what they said they wanted, and the anti-choice movement is still crying foul! It turned out they were always against the health care reform bill in its entirety, and abortion was simply a cover story to give moral weight to their opposition to universal health care. And, as Politico demonstrated, folks like Charmaine Yoest have no problem lying about abortion and health care reform, if it suits their goal of resisting health care reform:
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“That being said, the fact that [the] Democratic Party advanced the biggest expansion of abortion with health care is something they have to answer for.”
How does drastically cutting off women’s access to insurance coverage for abortion constitute “the biggest expansion of abortion”? Answer: it doesn’t. But it’s politically useful to say so if you’re hijacking people’s anxieties about abortion to oppose health care reform.
A cynic might suggest the anti-choice movement is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Republican party, but I would actually say that partisanship isn’t the issue in this case. What anti-abortion Democrats have failed to do is understand the cardinal rule when dealing with the anti-choice movement: It’s never about abortion. It’s about sex and it’s about reinforcing their belief about women’s roles. But it’s never really about abortion. Opposing abortion rights is simply their best weapon in achieving their larger goals.
Health care reform may have reduced women’s access to abortion, but social conservatives still have reasons to believe that the new health care system will run against their goals of punishing women for sexual choices they don’t like and keeping women dependent on men.
That the first concern—-that expanded access to health care will allow women to have sex with fewer negative consequences—-is somewhat true. On one hand, women won’t have insurance funding for abortion. But on the other hand, health care reform has the potential to greatly improve women’s access to contraception, STD testing and treatment, general gynecological care, and the HPV vaccine. (And the herpes vaccine, when it’s released.) So when you hear anti-choicers complain about “abortion” being covered, even though it’s not covered, it isn’t a leap to realize that by “abortion” they mean “prevention of cervical cancer and unintended pregnancy.” It’s just less politically popular to run to the press and complain that this health care reform bill will mean fewer deaths from cervical cancer.
The second concern is a bit more of a logical leap, but nonetheless still an article of faith for social conservatives: that a social safety net undermines the patriarchy by making it easier for women to leave bad marriages. Phyllis Schlafly outlined this argument at a Michigan fundraiser, saying, “And this is because when you kick your husband out, you’ve got to have Big Brother Government to be your provider.” And there is some truth to this. When women don’t have to rely on their husbands for food, shelter, and health care, then those husbands lose a lot of leverage.
But you can see why anti-choice groups realize that it’s a bad idea to argue in public that they oppose a bill that would allow an abused wife to walk away from her husband without losing her insurance. Thus, that gets swept into the catch-all scare term “abortion” as well.
Anti-abortion Democrats made the mistake of thinking that anti-choice activists use the term “abortion” to mean “terminating a pregnancy”, and that mistake is coming back to haunt them. Hopefully, in the future, they will start to see that anti-choice groups use “abortion” as a catch-all term to condemn any choices women make that give them more power to control their own lives. And if you doubt that, I recommend reading this story about Senators Coburn and DeMint are blocking a women’s history museum because of “abortion.” The fact that there is nothing about abortion or reproductive rights in general is irrelevant to this argument. Under the new right wing definition of “abortion”, it’s millennia of male dominance that is being aborted, and it is this abortion more than any actual medical abortion that they object to.