By Liz Lowengard
Liberation | February 10, 2011
Every year, on the anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, a group of determined activists appears on the steps of the Supreme Court to commemorate the day when a woman’s right to have an abortion was legalized in the United States. It is not a sentimental remembrance. It is an important occasion to remind the public of the continuing struggle to keep abortion legal.
It was Jan. 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled that laws forbidding abortion (except when necessary to save the life of the woman) were unconstitutional. The Court concluded that the issue of abortion and abortion rights falls under the right of privacy. Since that time, various rulings have undermined the basic right to privacy by balancing a woman's right to privacy with the “interests of the state” in protecting the so-called “unborn” or “pre-born.”
A woman’s right to control her body is not guaranteed in our “democracy.” It can be and has been weakened substantially by legislators on both the federal and state levels. Because it is more difficult to reverse a Supreme Court decision outright, conservative anti-choice legislators have chosen different tactics. One of them is known as the Hyde Amendment.
Starting in 1976, the Hyde Amendment has been added annually onto the appropriations bill that funds the Department of Health and Human Services. Each year, the most right-wing “family values” cabal calculates whether they have enough votes to change the language in the Amendment so that tighter restrictions are in place for poor women who are seeking an abortion with the use of Medicaid dollars.
The original wording of the Hyde Amendment disallowed the use of federal dollars except when the woman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy. Not when her health is at risk, only her life. There have been modifications over the past 35 years, which have added exceptions for rape and incest; however, this still restricts poor women's access to abortion.
In 2011, newly elected right-wing U.S. representatives calculated that they could change the Amendment and further restrict the use of federal dollars for abortion by adding the term “forcible rape” instead of plain old rape. Imagine the arrogance and cold-heartedness of this group of legislators so desperate to respond to the “family values” constituents, rich institutes and corporations that put them in office.
The language was put forward in committee by Reps. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.). It also included limitations on the age of the incest victim. This language was quickly defeated, actually withdrawn when pro-choice groups became aware of the suggested wording. Their attempt was foiled but not for lack of trying.
On Jan. 20, Pitts introduced HR 358, the Protect Life Act, which would allow a hospital to refuse to perform an emergency abortion even when necessary to save the life of the woman. Under current law, all hospitals that receive Medicare or Medicaid are required to provide emergency care, regardless of ability to pay. Minimally, they must stabilize the patient and if the hospital cannot provide the care, it must transfer the patient to a hospital that can.
The Pitts' bill would free hospitals from any abortion requirement, meaning that medical providers who are not willing to terminate pregnancies would not have to—nor would they have to facilitatea transfer. Pro-choice organizations are calling it the “Let Women Die” proposal.
A bill proposed by Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) would get rid of tax breaks for bosses who provide health coverage if the plans includes abortion services, and would forbid women from using pre-tax dollars from a flexible spending plan to pay for an abortion. The “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion” bill also includes the “forcible rape” language. Although Smith’s office says the word “forcible” will be withdrawn, the language remained in the bill as of Feb. 8.
These right-wing proposals are testing the waters for the larger issues and battles that will define health care for women when and if the new health care law goes into effect. Will the new laws mandate that health insurance providers offer family planning services to women free of charge? How will preventive health care be defined and what will it include?
In his pre-election campaigning, then candidate Barak Obama affirmed a woman’s right to choose and opposed the Hyde Amendment. But we should not forget the last minute wrangling and deal-making between Pres. Obama and Rep. Stupak to get the health care votes he needed. The deal stated that the president would sign a separate executive order reaffirming a ban on federal funding of abortions, a ban that creates great hardship for poor women. Apparently, women’s reproductive rights are negotiable in the legislative and executive arenas.
We cannot rely on the politicians' slogans and promises to secure our rights. We must remain vigilant and organize in the streets for free reproductive rights for all women.