Budget Showdown Casualties: D.C. Women as Bargaining Chips

How D.C.'s women were sacrificed and the implications for future policy.

On March 29th Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) sent a letter to President Obama asking for his leadership in preventing the House GOP from using D.C. riders as “bargaining chips” in the budget negotiations.  Congresswoman Norton wrote, “…recent media reports indicate that perhaps some D.C. riders may have emerged as bargaining chips in the CR negotiations, with some mentioning a prohibition on the use of the city’s local funds for abortions for low-income women in particular.”  She went on to explain: 

H.R. 1, the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act, re-imposes the bans on the District’s use of its local taxpayer raised-funds for abortions for low-income women and for needle-exchange programs, and reestablishes the failed D.C. voucher program.  Not only do the spending bans violate the District’s right to self-government; they have seriously harmed our residents.  It would be unacceptable to use the District’s low income women as a bargaining chip at a time when women’s rights advocates and the District have been particularly focused on protecting the city from a return to this restriction.  Allowing prohibition on using the city’s own funds to give choice to low-income women would send the wrong signal from Democrats on a pending bill, H.R. 3, that goes even further by writing this restriction into permanent law. 

Congresswoman Norton’s fears were realized on Friday night when the President Obama and Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid capitulated to the House GOP’s extortion tactics and included “…a provision banning the District from spending its own funds to provide abortions to low-income women as well as funding to continue a controversial school voucher program” in the stopgap measure designed to avert a government shutdown.  Using the D.C riders as bargaining chips contravenes the very notion of democratic representation within Congress.  D.C. residents have no actual voting power within Congress and therefore had no capacity to even register a vote against the stopgap measure on Friday night. 

Almost predicting what was about to happen to D.C. women, “[o]n Friday night…Norton said:

‘We are in great danger of becoming bargained as we feared, despite my conversation with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a few days ago, and the many conversations I have had with the Administration’.”

On Sunday, Congresswoman Norton remarked on the Democratic betrayal.  She told the New York Times, “[i]t looks to me that we were easy enough to throw under a bus, and that’s where we landed…When the Republicans demanded the district, they gave them the district…We feel sold out.”  

Now that President Obama and Senator Reid have bargained away D.C.’s right to self government and ignored Congresswoman Norton’s pleas – the question that all pro-choice women should be asking themselves is, what will the Democrats bargain away next? 

The President’s statement on Saturday declared that the agreement to avert a shutdown was “…good news for the American people.”  The President then qualified that declaration with the following assertion, “[l]ike any compromise, this required everyone to give ground on issues that were important to them.  I certainly did.  Some of the cuts we agreed to will be painful…And I would not have made these cuts in better circumstances.  But we also prevented this important debate from being overtaken by politics and unrelated disagreements on social issues.”  (Except for D.C.’s right to self government regarding abortion access and a controversial school voucher program.)  I guess President Obama forgot to include the following asterisk next to that last statement.

When the budget negotiations ramp up for FY 2012, what other reproductive rights will be sacrificed for the sake of compromise?  How far will the President be willing to stretch the definition of preventing the budget debate from being overtaken by “unrelated disagreements on social issues?”

The GOP is forcing the President further and further towards the right.  They have managed to convince many Americans that these deep budget cuts will actually benefit the economy; all the while savaging the poor and the middle class.  What is most frightening is that the President appears unwilling to put up a fight.  The GOP is now emboldened to hold the President and the Democrats hostage once again as the deadline for raising the federal debt ceiling fast approaches.  And even though the mainstream media continues to present the Tea Party as valiant fiscal conservatives, rest assured they are more than willing to bring about a government default on the debt to garner extreme ideological victories that have nothing to do with fiscal austerity. 

At a fundraiser this weekend, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said, “[t]here will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it.” 

The D.C. riders have absolutely nothing to do with the budget.  More importantly, the D.C. rider regarding abortion access does not “…actually save the federal government any money, since the rider would prohibit the District from spending its own locally-raised dollars on the procedure.”  And “[t]he good news for pro-life advocates is that the inclusion of…[this rider]…in the one-week continuing resolution ensures it remains in place to prohibit abortion funding in the nation’s capital for the rest of the year.” 

Similarly, the Planned Parenthood de-funding negotiations also had nothing to do with the budget.  In fact, defunding Planned Parenthood would actually increase the deficit

But why should the House GOP be concerned with fact and figures – they’re not interested in deficit reduction; they’re interested in imposing a social agenda on women to further reduce our economic and political power in the U.S.  And one sure way to move the country in that direction is to eliminate access to reproductive health care in this country – not just for low income women that primarily use Planned Parenthood as their sole health care provider but by removing access to insurance coverage for abortion services through the President’s signature piece of legislation – the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The National Women’s Law Center reports that currently“[i]n eleven states (AZ, ID, KY, LA, OK, MO, MS, ND, TN, UT, VA) women will not be allowed to use their own private money to purchase an exchange-based health plan that covers abortion services, and also may not be able to purchase a plan that provides insurance coverage for abortion at all.” 

And since ACA “…explicitly allows states to pass laws banning private insurance coverage of abortion in any exchange set up in their state,”  this problem will only get worse over time until it becomes too burdensome for any insurance carrier to offer abortion coverage.  We will eventually see all women – low-income and middle income, being deprived of basic access to abortion care services.  ACA may turn out to be the precise vehicle by which anti-choice state legislatures completely extinguish insurance coverage for abortion services in this country. 

The National Women’s Law Center concluded that:

“[b]ans on insurance coverage for abortion are dangerous to women’s health, take away access to health benefits that most women already have, and reflect an effort by state politicians to punish private health decisions and private health insurance, with the ultimate goal of further restricting access to abortion.” 

And of course, the provision allowing states to ban private insurance coverage for abortion services was yet another compromise from the White House that bargained away women’s reproductive rights. 

Meanwhile, the White House’s silence in response to the onslaught of extreme anti-choice state legislation  has been deafening.  NARAL Pro-Choice America reports that last year 174 anti-abortion bills were introduced in state legislatures throughout the country.  So far, this year, 351 anti-abortion bills have been introduced in the state legislatures.

NARAL Pro-Choice American Foundation sounded the alarm about the threat to D.C. abortion rights back in January.  Here’s some history on the Hyde Amendment and the prohibition on abortion access in D.C.

  • Beginning in 1980, Congress prohibited the use of federal funds for abortion services for low‐income women, with exceptions for cases of life endangerment, rape, and incest.
  • From 1988 to 1993, Congress also prohibited the District of Columbia from using its own locally raised revenues to provide abortion services to its residents.
  • In 1993 and 1994, Congress voted to lift the restriction on the use of locally raised revenues and allow the District to decide how to spend its own locally raised monies, as all 50 states do.
  • In 1995, an anti‐choice congressional majority reinstated the ban on the use of locally raised revenues in the District.
  • In 2009, prompted by President Obama, Congress again lifted the ban on the District’s use of its own privately raised funds to provide abortion care to its low‐income residents.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates 60,500 non-elderly Medicaid‐enrolled women may be affected by the reinstated ban; this is indeed “…a cruel blow to the poor and largely African-American women who need those services.”

NARAL also emphasizes that “[n]o other jurisdiction or state is told how to use its locally raised revenue.”  And the D.C. prohibition disregards “…the 1980 Supreme Court decision Harris v. McRae which upheld the right of Congress to restrict the use of federal funds to provide abortion care to low‐income women, but clearly asserted that state funds used to provide abortion services for low‐income women is a state, not federal, decision.” 

Back in December 2007 then candidate Obama responded to a Rewire questionnaire regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights.  Then Senator Obama’s staff responded to this question: Does Sen. Obama support the Hyde amendment?  Under what circumstances does he believe that Medicaid should cover abortions (all pregnancies, life- or health-threatening pregnancies, pregnancies that are a result of rape or incest, extreme fetal malformation)?

The answer:

Obama does not support the Hyde amendment.  He believes that the federal government should not use its dollars to intrude on a poor woman’s decision whether to carry to term or to terminate her pregnancy and selectively withhold benefits because she seeks to exercise her right of reproductive choice in a manner the government disfavors.

Abortion access is the only fundamental constitutional right that is constrained by how much money a woman has and how far away she lives from an abortion provider.  What other constitutional right is constrained in such a dangerous manner that so clearly discriminates against low-income women?

Yet, the impact of the Hyde Amendment continues to grow; and there seems to be next to no political will to do anything about it.  The result — poor women bear the greatest burden of this legal discrimination.  And the discriminatory effect is felt most acutely by women of color and in immigrant communities.

The Nation’s Melissa Harris-Perry recently explained “[t]oday’s conservatives… seek to define women’s citizenship as rooted in motherhood, and they are prepared to use state power to enforce this vision.”  Furthermore, the House GOP’s “…belt-tightening deficit reduction is entirely compatible with an older social agenda committed to pushing American women out of the public sphere… forcing women back into the domestic sphere.”  Simply put, a woman who cannot control her own “…fertility will be unable to compete for degrees or jobs with their male counterparts.” 

So how should the pro-choice community respond to this attack on the D.C.’s right to self governance; this imposition of big, intrusive government regulation on women’s private health care choices? 

Salon’s Glenn Greenwald and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow have recently emphasized how little respect Democrats, specifically the White House, have for their base.  Maddow commented that the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed before a military commission was announced on the very day President Obama kicked off his 2012 campaign.  She noted that the Democratic party hates their base and that “…they think it’s good politics for Democratic politicians to kick that base publicly whenever possible.  Only the base itself will ever change that.”  So while the GOP fears its base and “play to them,” Democrats consider their base irrelevant.  Greenwald, using Maddow’s commentary, discusses how the Democratic base can begin to “change this dynamic…”   

Americans that believe reproductive rights should not be a luxury enjoyed only by women who can afford the cost must stop demonstrating their unqualified and loyal support for Democrats regardless of their actions.  President Obama and the Democrats have no incentive to fight for reproductive justice for all women if they know that those same women will support their campaigns no matter what they do.   

Greenwald states, “[a]nyone who pledges unconditional, absolute fealty to a politician — especially 18 months before an election — is guaranteeing their own irrelevance.” 

Pro-choice advocates must stop settling for crumbs from the Democrats and from President Obama and begin to demand more.  Until and unless we demand more we will continue to see our reproductive rights betrayed and bargained away, all in the name of compromise.