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All year, we were assured that the administration was going to keep the health care bill "abortion neutral," which is to say, neither restricting or advancing abortion rights. But as it turned out, what was meant by neutrality, was extending the principles of the most significant anti-abortion legislation in American history, and calling it moderate; a  compromise; abortion neutral. While the principles of the Hyde Amendment, named for the conservative Catholic Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) which proscribes federal funding for providing abortion care, primarily via Medicaid, may very well end up being the alternative to the Stupak/Pitts Amendment, it is far from being neutral on abortion. And many who oppose Stupak call it "preserving the status quo."  

This week at the webzine Religion Dispatches, I discuss this further. Here are  excerpts:

The gradual adoption of the principles of the most significant anti-abortion legislation in history as a moderate compromise constitutes a stunning shift in American political and religious life, and raises fundamental questions about whether society views abortion care as part of health care and about its commitment to the right to choose an abortion, as it points to a significant double standard for poor women.

Prior to Hyde, about a third of all abortions performed in the United States were for poor women on Medicaid. "No other medical procedure was singled out for exclusion," the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) reported (PDF) in 2005. "Today, 33 states have followed suit, prohibiting state Medicaid funding [for abortion] as well." All but one of these states (South Dakota) follows the Hyde exceptions of rape, incest, or life endangerment. The report details the disproportionate burdens placed on disadvantaged women, and observes that "women of color disproportionately depend on such coverage, making abortion funding a matter of racial justice as well as economic justice and women’s rights."

But the federal restrictions did not stop there. Over the years, Congress has also legislated against access to abortion services for women in the military and Peace Corps, disabled women, residents of the District of Columbia, federal prisoners, and women covered by the Indian Health Service. Indeed, it could be argued that except for the legal right to an abortion, federal policies constitute the greatest abortion reduction program of all.

Historic pro-choice religious communities see Hyde differently than the current Inside the Beltway consensus. For example, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Hyde, the Washington, DC-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, (a group of 40 religious organizations, including major protestant denominations and most of the major organizations of Judaism) issued a "call to conscience" (PDF) to end this discriminatory and punitive measure":  

By singling out abortion for exclusion, government has created a two-tiered system of health care in which poor and low-income women do not have the same ability to make personal decisions about abortion as those who can afford services or have private insurance. We believe this is fundamentally unfair. For women, justice must include the ability to make decisions about bringing a child into the world, without coercion and with the full support of family and society.

At this writing, the version of the Stupak-Pitts amendment submitted by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NB) in the Senate has been tabled, and it is possible that the Stupak-Pitts amendment may get stripped from the final bill in a conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill. But Marlene Gerber Fried, Director of the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College, in Amherst, MA, nevertheless considers such an outcome a hollow victory, many years in the making. She observes that "Beating Stupak will mean that millions of women still won’t be covered. It just won’t be millions more."

"We are still living with the legacy of an abortion politic," she said in a telephone interview last week, "that did not put the interests of poor women up front. The idea that a Constitutional right requires access to that right is," she concluded, "just not part of liberal thinking." This has happened in part because the voices of pro-choice religious communities and advocates for the abortion rights of the poor have been marginalized in Washington and in the media. So opposition to the idea that Hyde is somehow "abortion-neutral" went largely unchallenged.

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Thu Dec 10, 2009 at 05:24 PM PST.

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