Futile Concessions

Over the years, I've put myself on lots of right-wing mailing lists, which must have been why the American Center for Law and Justice called this weekend to inform me that the Senate's health-care reform bill is "an abortionist's dream come true." The robocall, featuring the voice of ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow, said that the current bill is essentially the Freedom of Choice Act -- a long-cherished legislative goal of the pro-choice movement -- disguised as health-care reform. According to Sekulow, should the Senate bill pass, "every plan in the country will be forced to cover abortion."

I was actually mildly surprised by Sekulow's willingness to flat out lie to his supporters. In truth, after all, health-care reform has been a nightmare for the pro-choice movement. If health care passes at all -- an increasingly distant possibility -- it is likely to eliminate the abortion coverage that millions of American women already have. Right now, the most feasible way to save health-care reform is for the House to pass the Senate bill. Both bills continue the ban on using federal money for abortion, and both contain incentives for private insurance plans to stop covering abortion, though the House's version is worse in this regard. Both bills would represent a big step forward in health-care coverage for the country at large but a significant step backward for access to reproductive rights.

We've reached a point where health-care reform hinges on abortion, but the pro-choice movement loses either way. It can't rally behind the existing legislation. At the same time, because the future of abortion rights in America is deeply entwined with the future of the Democratic Party, the failure of health-care reform, and the consequent weakening of the Democrats, would ultimately be disastrous for choice. It's a total mess. But was it inevitable?

It's always easy to criticize tough political decisions in hindsight. It's increasingly clear, though, that the pro-choice movement made a mistake going into health-care reform. It compromised too soon and underestimated the implacability of the opposition. It didn't demand enough and ended up with less than nothing.

"I think without question it was a mistake to begin in a compromised position," says Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "Its our job as the advocacy community to make clear what the optimal policy outcome would be for Americans who care about access to abortion services, and to strenuously argue that the bill should not differentiate between abortion services and other health care."

Instead, early on, leaders in the pro-choice movement decided to try to take abortion off the table. Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has banned federal funding for abortion. Going into the health-care debate, abortion-rights advocates largely lined up behind an amendment offered by Rep. Lois Capps of California, which aimed to preserve the status quo while avoiding new restrictions on abortion funding.

Movement leaders were trying to be reasonable, to do their part for the progressive coalition. It's not hard to understand their reasoning. Had the demands of feminists tripped up negotiations, the vitriol of other Democrats would have been merciless: How dare these women stymie a historic progressive goal because of their pet issue, their shrill identity politics? Besides, those most concerned about women's health had every reason to hope for health-care reform's smooth, quick passage, even if it didn't improve abortion access. Neutralizing the issue seemed smart.

But when the status quo is your opening offer, there's nowhere to negotiate but down. The pro-choice movement was left in the perverse position of essentially defending Hyde, an ugly piece of legislation that, among other things, denies abortion coverage to women on Medicaid with pregnancies that threaten their health. (A woman has to be threatened with death, not simply injury.) In her new book Dispatches from the Abortion Wars , the sociologist Carole Joffe makes the human costs of Hyde agonizingly clear. Every day, she writes, women call the National Abortion Fund hotline desperate for abortions they can't afford. Case managers have to decide how to allocate scarce private resources. "It's a sad calculus," one tells her. "It helps if they are farther along in pregnancy [rather] than earlier. Or if they are living with their batterer, and he would know if they'd pawn anything. Or if they are homeless. … Like, we got this call last week from a woman whose house burned down and her three children were taken away. We were able to get some money for her."

The pro-choice movement should have made fighting Hyde a priority a long time ago. It wouldn't be popular, but movements aren't politicians -- they exist to push public opinion, not cater to it. Besides, as Sekulow's call suggests, conservatives were going to accuse any bill, no matter what it said, of being an abortion bonanza. Had the pro-choice movement made more demands, the other side's reaction would have been exactly the same. There would have been the same need to placate people like Bart Stupak and Ben Nelson. The eventual compromise, though, might have looked different. It might, in fact, have looked like the Capps amendment -- a restatement of Hyde that gives nothing to either side. Meanwhile, instead of acquiescing to the idea that federal funding of abortion is beyond the pale, the pro-choice movement would have forced a debate and possibly pushed the center a bit in the direction of justice.

The lesson here goes far beyond abortion. It's not that progressives should be uncompromising or refuse to make concessions to political reality. It's that concessions will never mollify the right or ward off political attacks. It's a mystery why the Democratic Party never seems to grasp this. There's no choice but to fight.