Abortion rights a hill Diana DeGette's willing to die on in healthcare debate

Just because the House of Representatives passed a healthcare bill this weekend doesn't mean it'll stay passed. Denver congresswoman Diana DeGette is leading a group of reproductive-rights supporters who are mad as hell that the version of the legislation okayed on Saturday contains an amendment co-authored by Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak that builds on the barriers already in place (most notably the 1976 Hyde Amendment) to prevent federal funds from being used to pay for abortions. And Kristofer Eisenla, DeGette's communications director, emphasizes that while she's willing to compromise to some degree, she won't capitulate on the core issue, even if it means that the healthcare bill is dead on arrival.

"There's time for compromise and time to talk, and she looks forward to finding common ground with the proponents of the Stupak amendment, and ensuring that the final language in the bill doesn't go beyond current law," he says. "She's working very closely with the Speaker [Nancy Pelosi] to make sure that doesn't happen. But if the healthcare bill goes far beyond current law in restricting a woman's right to choose, she will oppose it."

The Stupak amendment made the final cut in part because of pressure put on by Catholic heavy-hitters such as Archbishop Charles Chaput, who threatened last week to withdraw his support for healthcare legislation over the issue of federal funding for abortion. But Eisenla sees the Stupak language as being far too extreme.

"Current law under the Hyde Amendment basically says federal funds do not go to perform abortion services," he says. "The Stupak amendment says private money cannot be used to purchase a plan that offers abortion services. If you're in the Exchange [the current term for the public option], money cannot be used to purchase a plan that offers abortion services -- not even your private dollars. And you can't use private dollars to buy into private plans if they accept any subsidies from the system.

"My boss didn't like the Hyde Amendment," Eislenla concedes -- but in the Energy and Commerce committee for which DeGette serves as vice chair, Eisenla says, "a compromise was reached that kept the status quo in place."

That's what DeGette would prefer -- and Eisenla says her thinking echoes that of the healthcare bill's biggest proponent. "The President said yesterday, 'This is a healthcare bill, not an abortion bill.' This bill is about expanding access to healthcare for 36 million Americans, and we shouldn't use it to change social policy in this country."

Here's DeGette's press release about the Stupak amendment, complete with a copy of a letter that will be sent to Speaker of the House Pelosi:


Amendment Effectively Bans Abortion Coverage in All Plans in the Exchange, including the Public Health Insurance Options and All Private Health Insurance Plans

Will Not Vote for Conference Report that Restricts a Women's Right to Choose Any Further than Current Law

WASHINGTON -- After the House of Representatives passed a measure restricting a woman's right to choose early Sunday morning, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado and U.S. Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, co-chairs of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus, today released the text of a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi outlining objections to the intentions of the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. With over 40 signatures collected so far, the letter is currently being circulated for additional signatures and will then be sent to Speaker Pelosi: -- November 7, 2009

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi


U.S. House of Representatives

H-232 Capitol

Washington, DC 20515

Dear Madam Speaker:

As Members of Congress we believe that women should have access to a full range of reproductive health care. Health care reform must not be misused as an opportunity to restrict women's access to reproductive health services.

The Stupak-Pitts amendment to H.R. 3962, The Affordable Healthcare for America Act, represents an unprecedented and unacceptable restriction on women's ability to access the full range of reproductive health services to which they are lawfully entitled. We will not vote for a conference report that contains language that restricts women's right to choose any further than current law.

Sincerely, -- The underlying health care bill, H.R. 3962, already includes compromise language, the Capps Amendment, that applies the Hyde amendment so that it has the same effect as it currently does in Medicaid. The health insurance Exchange is not comparable to Medicaid. This is fundamentally a private health care system whereby individuals will be purchasing plans from private insurance companies, in large part with their own money. The Stupak-Pitts Amendment dramatically changes federal policies related to abortion coverage and undermines the principle of abortion neutrality in health care reform.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts