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Back to the Backroom? Legislation Threatens Women's Right to Abortion

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They're at it again.   Conservatives in Congress want to limit a woman's constitutional right to abortion, and this time their tactics are scary. Once again, those of us who've been fighting for decades for women's right to reproductive health care and for nondiscriminatory policies that affect poor women are gearing up for a fight.   It's one that won't be easily won.

      Two bills recently introduced in the House of Representatives are aimed at reducing financing for and access to abortion.   One of them was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R.-N.J.) who thinks rape is really only rape if it involves force.   For years, federal laws restricting the use of government funds to pay for abortions have had exemptions in cases of rape or incest.   But the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act", with over 170 co-sponsors, has a provision that would drastically limit the definition of rape and incest.   If passed, women who've been drugged and raped or victims of statutory rape who become pregnant would no longer be able to get an abortion if it required federal dollars.   Smith goes even further.   Incest, he claims, only qualifies for federally funded abortion if the victim is younger than eighteen.   And if a teenager is impregnated by a predator, her parents would not be allowed to use their own funds from a tax-free Health Savings Account to pay for her abortion.    This Draconian policy recommendation smacks of Ceausescu Days in Romania. As one blogger put it, "Does [Smith] mean forcible rape as opposed to consensual rape?   And what exactly is consensual rape?"   Washington, D.C. lawyer Steph Sterling says "this bill takes us backward to a time when just saying no wasn't enough to qualify as rape."   Other proposed legislation would allow hospitals to refuse a woman an abortion if her doctor had an attack of conscience, and would prohibit federal funds for women's health clinics if they provide abortions in addition to their other services. Planned Parenthood -- which many women rely on for pap smears, infertility problems, and routine exams and screening -- has been especially targeted. There are also attempts to prevent private employers from receiving tax breaks if the health care insurance they provide covers abortion.   All these attempts, of course, are aimed at getting abortion coverage out of health insurance plans. In January the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) released two reports that reveal how women's health and lives would be put at risk by such cruel and inhumane legislation.   "Most women assume that when they go to a hospital they will be offered the best medical treatment options for their diagnosis," says NWLC Co-President Marcia Greenberger.   "But this report paints a chilling picture of women with ectopic pregnancies or suffering miscarriages who are not offered the full spectrum of medically appropriate treatment options. " Women who fail to receive appropriate treatment or to be informed that preferable options would be provided in another hospital can suffer serious harm with long-term adverse consequences to their lives and health." Another report, "Separate and Unequal", issued by the Center for American Progress, describes the disproportionate impact that abortion funding restrictions have on poor women and women of color.   "We do not subject other fundamental constitutional freedoms -- voting, free speech, freedom to worship, the right to a fair trial, the right to counsel -- to poll taxes or income requirements," the report notes.   "But a woman's ability to act on her constitutionally protected decision to have an abortion is subject to the whims of a fickle legislature and what is (or is not) in her pocketbook." The report notes that the still-standing Hyde Amendment has long prohibited Medicaid from covering abortion care in almost all circumstances.   But, it reminds, the Amendment intentionally discriminates against poor women, who are disproportionately women of color.   "In this way, the Hyde Amendment is a policy that not only violates reproductive rights and principles of gender equity but one that undermines racial and economic justice as well."   Justice Thurgood Marshall agreed.   "The Hyde Amendment," he wrote, was "designed to deprive poor and minority women of the constitutional right to choose abortion."

Last year 34 of more than 600 anti-abortion bills proposed by state lawmakers were approved.   But that number is likely to grow markedly because of new anti-choice state legislatures and governors. Virginia is the latest example. A bill there aims to eliminate most of the state's 21 abortion clinics by requiring clinics that provide first-trimester abortions to meet the same physical standards as hospitals (e.g. wider hallways.)

  That's why, state by state, health care advocates and women are fighting back.   Health Care for All New York, for example, has established a set of standards that includes a health care exchange that supports principles of health equity.   New Mexico's Health Care for All plan calls for universal access that provides equitable, affordable and quality health care for all its citizens.   Both plans call for access to abortion coverage. And in Pennsylvania, women have coalesced around how to avoid an abortion coverage ban in the face of last year's election which put an anti-choice governor in office.   "This kind of coordinated planning is essential for women's health advocates as states begin implementing health reform," the Pennsylvania Coalition for Choice says. Raising Women's Voices, a national network of health activists, says that "a "gendered' view of health reform is both valid and critical" as health care reform proceeds.   Any woman who has had an unintended pregnancy, or who has been violated, knows all too well the importance of that perspective. The challenge now is to get Neanderthals like Chris Smith to care.
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Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)
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