The “Protect Life Act:” Will There Be a Price to Be Paid?

To me, the most interesting question posed by the brazen contempt for women contained in H.R.358, is whether the antiabortion movement has finally gone too far.

Here is a story from 2002, as reported by the BBC:

Saudi Arabia’s religious police stopped schoolgirls from leaving a blazing building because they were not wearing correct Islamic dress, according to Saudi newspapers. In a rare criticism of the kingdom’s powerful “mutaween” police, the Saudi media has accused them of hindering attempts to save 15 girls who died in the fire….

And here is a story from 2011, as reported in Talking Points Memo, about the “Protect Life Act,” H.R.358, which would amend the 2010 health reform law:

… new language inserted into the bill just this week would…(allow) hospitals that receive federal funds but are opposed to abortions to turn away women in need of emergency pregnancy termination to save their lives.

As the juxtaposition of these two incidents show, fundamentalism, one of whose defining features is the devaluing of women’s lives, clearly knows no geographical borders. Despite H.R. 358’s Orwellian name, this bill quite obviously is not intended to protect the lives of pregnant women.

As of February 4, one hundred members of Congress, including some women, have signed on as co-sponsors of the bill. It is of course wishful thinking to believe that the these elected officials could be pressured to sign a statement certifying that they would have no objection if their wives, daughters, or in the cases of the congresswomen still in their reproductive years, were themselves  sent in an emergency situation to a hospital that refused to perform a life-saving abortion.  (We have already seen that only a handful of Republicans who voted against health care reform have refused Congress’ generous plan for themselves and virtually all of them, according to Think Progress, have accepted it for their staffs).

It is possible that public outcry will, in the next week or so, cause a retreat from this astonishing provision, just as antiabortionists in Congress had to back down from their attempt to replace “rape” with “forcible rape” as one of the limited situations in which Medicaid funding can be used to pay for abortions. (To be sure, the retreat on rape is largely a symbolic one. As a recent study from the research organization Ibis Reproductive Health has shown, there is already a shocking lack of compliance with existing law on the funding of abortions through Medicaid in cases of rape).

But even if antiabortionists do back off from this craziness, what will such a “victory” for prochoice forces actually mean? The brilliance of the most recent history of anti-abortion activity in Congress– which started the day Barack Obama became president and has culminated, with the “Protect Life Act,” in the frank admission that it really is not a problem if some women die– is that if forced to drop its most extreme measures, the rest of the anti-abortion agenda looks, by comparison, more palatable.  So even if pressured to drop this provision about life-saving abortions in hospitals, the Protect Life Act very likely will achieve its goal of making it increasingly likely that insurance companies will ultimately drop any insurance coverage of abortions, and of course, to continue the longstanding campaign of the antiabortion movement to make abortion care as marginalized as possible from the rest of health care.

To me, the most interesting question posed by the brazen contempt for women contained in H.R.358, is whether the antiabortion movement has finally gone too far.  Will this bizarre and shocking episode resonate with the American people?  Or will it be seen as just another noisy skirmish in the endless abortion war, a war most Americans are tired of. Even if this provision is dropped due to public outcry (and one hopes that the heroic Jon Stewart is preparing to skewer this, just as he did with the “forcible rape” proposal), it won’t necessarily change anything.  The game changing moment will only happen if the constituents of the bill’s sponsors are willing to ask these officials why they are willing to let women die.  And if the answer is not satisfactory—and how could it possibly be?—the voters have to make clear they won’t vote for someone willing to let them, or someone they love, needlessly die.