Democrats reach for the shiny object

Look At the Shiny Object

by digby

Yesterday Debbie Wasserman-Shultz came out swinging against the latest GOP assault on women, calling the new requirement that only those who are the victims of "forcible" rape be entitled to government funded abortion, "violence against women" and she's right. This is a strong element of the abortion debate and it gets to the very essence of the anti-abortion argument, namely that pregnancy is God's punishment for female sexuality. (That's so twisted, it's hard to even wrap your mind around it.)

But I suspect the heinousness of this latest attack is no accident. The conservatives understand the art of negotiation and I think they have put this provision in there for the express purpose of creating a firestorm, drawing the attention of the pro-choice groups and then "reluctantly" giving it up in exchange for the Democrats giving in on all the other, less sexy, changes they really want. Changes which will restrict abortion for far more people throughout the country than this rape redefinition ever would.

The fight to extend the Hyde Amendment and make the permanent law of the land has been going on for more than 30 years. It has been a hard fought battle, with the forces for women losing in increments, over and over and over again, mostly due to the fact that they've been used as bargaining chips in "more important" battles. Frederick Clarkson wrote a great piece about this battle a while back at Religion Dispatches which is well worth reading in its entirety, if you aren't aware of this history:
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 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.

“Prior to 1996,” states the NNAF report, “legal immigrants and US citizens were equally eligible for Medicaid.” But the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Clinton required a five-year waiting period before most new legal immigrants could even apply. Less than half of the states fill in the five-year gap with their own funds, and nine states permanently deny Medicaid coverage to non-citizen residents.

Defenders of abortion rights might legitimately worry that “conscience clauses” could also be said to have a venerable history. The original conscience clause legislation passed in 1973 in the wake of Roe states, according to the Congressional Research Service, that public officials may not require individuals or entities who receive certain public funds to perform abortion or sterilization procedures, or to make facilities or personnel available for the performance of such procedures, if such performance “would be contrary to [the individual or entity’s] religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

This provision has allowed even major medical facilities (such as Roman Catholic hospitals) to refuse to deal with abortions without jeopardizing their ability to receive public grants and contracts or affect their tax-exempt status. A new rule promulgated late in the Bush administration expanded and particularized the exemptions, stating that health workers may even refuse to provide information or advice regarding abortion. The Obama administration has rescinded the Bush rule, but says it plans to leave some kind “reasonable” exemptions in place.

It points out that with Obama's startling public comments that Hyde is "tradition", a consensus rather suddenly formed among DC liberals that this battle was no longer on the agenda. I know that when I heard it, I felt a sick feeling in my stomach --- the feeling you get when you know that the goalpost has just been moved halfway down the field. The "tradition" is one of Democrats selling out women over and over again. Read Clarkson's piece to see how the health care bill did it again.

So now we are dealing with a new congress that is determined to pick up where the health care bill left off. And it appears that the Democrats are getting distracted by the bright shiny object and failing to engage on the real issue the Republicans are targeting, which is a further restriction on abortion rights and the final codification of Hyde. And as usual, I have to wonder if they can possibly be this dumb or if they are preparing to cave as part of their ongoing quixotic strategy to find "common ground" going into 2012. Indeed, considering the president's comments about "tradition" I have to think he would be more than willing to entertain a bipartisan agreement on this issue. There is no reason to believe that he won't sign the bill. (Of course, he and the Democrats can heroically take credit for ensuring that there was no "rape" provision, so we'll all be asked to cheer our team for the good work they are doing on our behalf.)

In my view, if there is to be any chance that this "compromise" doesn't happen, pro-choice groups should not play this game at all. They should not play their designated role in this as Wasserman-Shultz did yesterday and instead demand that Hyde be rolled back completely. It is an unconscionable exception to every other law in this land in that it allows individuals and institutions to decide their "consciences" don't allow them to pay taxes for a specific program. (The irony of this happening at the same time that liberals are fighting like wildcats for the health care mandate is more than I can take.)

Frances Kiesling made the case during the health care reform battle:

But the immediate take away is the cold hard fact that our biggest and most costly defeat since 1973 was the enactment of the Hyde Amendment and our lack of a total, uncompromising commitment to overturning it. If nothing else happens as a result of this defeat, complete and total dedication to overturning Hyde must be the centerpiece, indeed the single objective of our movement. It is not clear if the effect of the Stupak Amendment will be that the door will close on ever restoring federal funds for abortion, but every effort to make sure that does not happen must be made. We must convince enough people that the only immorality is using poor women as a way of expressing one’s moral outrage. Either we all have the right to choose or none of us has it.

The pro-choice groups got rolled in that battle. And perhaps it's foolish to think it won't happen again given the history. But it doesn't have to. If enough pressure were brought to bear on this, they could keep this from being another bipartisan sell-out of a core Democratic constituency.

In any case, don't be fooled by the shiny object. This is just another example of Republicans knowing how to negotiate. The question is whether or not it's a real negotiation or a kabuki dance where the Democrats are only playing the role of the outraged fool.