Thursday, 12 November 2009

Don't Ask Don't Tell to be repealled next year?

Congressman Barney Frank has stated that the repeal (at long last) of the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy will be included in next year's Military Authorization Act.

This is excellent news. Frank is not known for beating around the bush, so when he says something he believes it.

But the bit that made me really believe this would happen was these lovely words:

Anecdotally, Frank recalled an incident earlier this year when Defense secretary Robert Gates made a statement to reporters suggesting that repeal was still an open question.

“There was a point where Gates said, ‘If we repeal don’t ask, don’t tell,’ and the next day he said, 'When we repeal don’t ask, don’t tell,’” said Frank. “That’s because Rahm called him up. The White House has been consistently committed.”

Every soldier who serves with honor deserve the right to live his or her life with honor - asking our men and women in uniform to sneak around and hide the most basic facts about themselves is just... tawdry. It's not worthy of the dignity that should come with service.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

My First Blog Post EVER! Those were the days...

Wow. On a whim, I thought I would check to see if my short-lived first blog - the one I started way back in 2003 and used for a combination of political and personal perspectives for a very short period of time until... like most blogs... I trailed off.

Well it IS still up there, and reading it again it's funny to see how much my perspective has remained pretty consistent across time.

My very first blog post ever was inspired by W's visit to Britain at the time, when he was give the Royal treatment (literally) but kept far away from the many thousands of protestors.

So here's how I got started, on day one of My Life as Blogger:

So I live here in London, and I have a lot of friends back home in Washington who have been asking me whether I was at the demonstrations against Bush's state visit. I wasn't. But here's what I think of the visit itself and the protest.

The visit was a stupid idea - no American President has ever before been honoured with a state visit, hosted by the queen, and the time to do this would be when there was a genuine spirit of togetherness and pride in the "special relationship" that these two countries have. From what I have seen back home, Americans are feeling especially warm towards Britain at the moment and Tony Blair is becoming a sort of national hero. That's great - I'm glad that Americans are warming up to a leader who is anti-death penalty, staunchly pro-national health care, willing to invest huge amount of money in education (and not just create an unfunded mandate) and public services. I'm a little surprised, but I'm glad...

Deep thought

These guys don't seem real respectful of the members of the Women's Caucus.


On a totally unrelated point, they had a lot of fun on the same day denying abortion rigths to an awful lot of women.

Coincidence, I'm sure, and not at all reflective of any innate misogyny. These guys are famous for their sensitivity to women, after all.

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.

The Berlin Wall and Health Insurance Reform

This weekend I was in Berlin for a Democrats Abroad regional meeting which was held (only semi-coincidentally) on the same weekend that the city is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of the fall of the wall.

Meanwhile, in the US Congress, the House narrowly passed its version of Health Insurance reform – after an uncomfortable compromise with the Anti-Abortion faction with the Party.

Both events, the historic and the contemporary, are likely to profoundly shape the respective countries for years to come.

Watching again on video the images – so often repeated, but never stale – of East Germans streaming through the Brandenburg Gate, climbing over the wall, taking pickaxes and hammers to the 10 feet high concrete... who could fail to be moved.

Meanwhile, only a couple of days ago in the US Congress, furious right wingers took over the halls of Congress bearing despicable images of Dachau victims, with text explicitly comparing President Obama’s desire to provide minimal health protections to all America’s citizens with the Nazi’s determined effort to slaughter a large number of theirs. The juxtaposition of these images with those from Berlin made me wonder if these radical right wingers even understand the meaning of the Freedom that they claim to be fighting for. The freedom that those ecstatic Germans peaceful won for themselves 20 years ago.

After all, ugly propaganda and politically expedient lies were more or less exactly what they were fleeing. And of course they were not fleeing the hell of a totalitarian state for the right to go bankrupt for lack of sufficient health insurance.

It may sound absurd to say that - but that is, quite literally, the argument that the right has always made about any attempt to improve the availability of health care for Americans. Listen to Ronald Reagan telling us how Medicare expansion will mean the end of a free America.

But the people who peacefully revolted in Germany 20 years ago didn’t see it that way.

Reunification for them didn’t mean the right to be “free” of all government attempts to improve their lives. Indeed, East Germany and its citizens received mass quantities of direct subsidies from the West for decades – and until this day. The citizens of the West made a collective decision that they were willing to make a massive investment of their taxes in support of their strongly held value that the people of the East should be offered a higher standard of living.

And of course, West Germany did also have high quality, near universal health care for all its citizens. If this had not been the case, I doubt very much if the newly liberated East Germans would have very excited to be congratulated by the Right for entering a country in which they would be free of the totalitarian free health care they had been burdened with all these years. To the extent that people in the former Soviet bloc had objections to nationalised health care it was because they wanted MORE OF IT – a better managed system that would provide more drugs and services. Not because they wanted to pay twice as much on the private market as what they would theoretically be paying in taxes.

Would they have chosen free health care over a free Democracy? Who knows. I wouldn’t. But fortunately, that is not the choice we are presented with here.

In a free society, free citizens can decide to improve the way that important things such as health care are run. They can chose to spend more in taxation, or to spend the same amount overall but reallocate how it is spent, or to intervene in the free market when it fails the public good. Free citizens in a free society can choose to punish their leaders if they don’t like how they manage this.

With health insurance reform passed through the House, all eyes will now be on the Senate to see if they can pass a similarly strong package. If they do, we’ll still need to await reconciliation of the two approved bills, and passage of the final package before the President can sign something into law.

But when he does, that will be a great day. For freedom.