Monday, 9 November 2009

The Abortion Compromise

When I was at college in Washington, DC one of the biggest moments there happened in late January each year. That was the annual anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe Versus Wade decision, and for a few days my city would be overtaken by tens of thousands of Right to Life protestors.

My friends and I would always avoid the National Mall during these days – the posters of aborted foetuses were annoying, but even more so the confused mobs of Midwesterners in their matching t-shirts who would block the escalators with their out-of-towner refusals to “stand right, walk left.”

But I DID go every year to the local Women’s Health Clinic on the day before the march, to link arms with fellow students from our local Students for Choice chapter and form a human barrier as pro-lifers made a concerted effort to enter and shut down the building.

It was ritualistic rather than violent, and fortunately our organisers were experienced and professional – they knew how to keep temperatures cool even in a pretty heated environment, and they made sure all stayed focussed on our core mission: keep the clinic open.

The Women’s Health Clinic was not an abortion factory – the vast majority of their services were related to birth control, STD testing and prenatal care. In reality, the clinic would routinely encourage patients not to make appointments on the protest days – it was traumatic enough for women who were dealing with a pregnancy (wanted or unwanted) without having to wade past an angry army calling them murderers. So the very few patients who did come in on the day were typically drop-ins – women who had not phoned ahead, but made a spur of the moment decision to get tested or seek family planning. But keeping the clinic open was a point of principle and pride for us.

The pro-life people I faced off with, even when they were doing their best to push through our linked arms, didn’t strike me as bad people. They were Christians mostly, and when not shouting names at me, they seemed pleasant enough to each other. I watched them serving each other coffee from thermoses, sharing a joke. Once an older woman fell ill and her friend politely chastised her for not taking her pills. Then the both lay down on the pavement until the police arrested them and carried them away.

But there were one or two unpleasant incidents. One time, a middle aged woman who had been face to face with me on the line for some time, started shouting, “Are you Jewish? Are you Jewish?” right in my face. We’d been instructed not to engage with the protesters, but in this case I was shocked into a response. “No, actually. I’m Episcopalian.”
“Because the Jewish faith permits the murder of babies!” she shouted, apparently unwilling to let go of her script. Or perhaps she just felt strongly that the situation could be improved with some arbitrary, out of context anti-Semitism.


Why Am I Telling You All of This?

This is all by way of somewhat proving my pro-choice bona fides. Because the pro-choice movement just faced in some its biggest setback for decades. And it’s something I’m going to reluctantly support.

I am referring, of course, to the compromise that was agreed in the House’s Health Insurance Reform bill. Faced with a rebellion from pro-life Democrats in her own caucus, Nancy Pelosi agreed to allow an amendment to the bill that would ban abortion provision under the publicly managed health care plan. So far this was pretty much what I was expecting, and an agreement that for political expediency (the ugliest but most unavoidable of excuses) I was prepared to live with.

What came as a shock to me – and apparently also to a large number people in the pro-choice part of Pelosi’s caucus – was the additional provision that would also forbid those who receive health care subsidies from purchasing any plan that also covers abortion.

This is worse than it sounds. Of course, the intention here is to avoid using government money in any way to directly pay for abortion services. I fundamentally disagree with this judgement (if a woman needs a medical service, she needs it regardless of who pays) but I CAN understand the logic of it, and on a subject where so many people so passionately disagree – where they not only disagree but think those who think otherwise are condoning murder – it’s not insane to say that there’s something inappropriate about asking those folks to spend their tax dollars on a service the consider morally abhorrent.

(As an aside, I can’t help but wish these people had been equally respectful of my pretty similar beliefs about the Iraq war – but... well...)

However, the compromise agreed doesn’t just affect the specific use of federal tax dollars – the ban on use of Abortion-inclusive services for all plans made available to women who receive subsidies is likely to have the obvious consequence that most private sector plans will stop including the service altogether. After all, the insurance companies – for all their kicking and screaming – are perfectly aware that this bill represents a significant new customer base for them. If the government says they need to cut abortion from their plans to get these new customers, I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige – and it’s easiest just to trim it from all the basic packages.

So why am I still supporting the bill even after choking down this bitter pill?

Simple – women’s health includes more than the rare and declining cases where she might need an abortion.

I am lucky enough never to have had an unwanted pregnancy. But I sure do need a regular cervical exam, I’ll be needing breast cancer screenings pretty soon, I’ve got chronic trouble with my lower back (much better at the moment, thanks for asking) and if I break a leg tomorrow I sure don’t want to worry whether my insurance will cover me. Fortunately, I live in England. But somehow I don’t think that’s going to be a workable solution for the 40 odd million uninsured right now.
Most women will never need an abortion in their lifetimes. With good family planning services we can bring down this number even further – and we should. But every woman needs, and deserves quality, affordable health care.

If necessary I will stand with linked arms one more time to stop the right from shutting us down.

No comments: