On Tuesday afternoon, Senate Democrats decided not to sell out women, even if doing so would make passing health-care reform easier. By defeating the Nelson amendment, they finally demonstrated some respect for the feminists who are a crucial part of the Democratic Party. The fact is, the old, purely class-based New Deal coalition isn’t feasible in the 21st century. Women’s rights can no longer be blithely traded away at the bargaining table.
The amendment offered by Nebraska’s Ben Nelson, the Senate’s most conservative Democrat, was essentially identical to the Stupak amendment that was included in the House bill. Like Stupak, the Nelson amendment would have mandated that no government subsidies could be used to purchase insurance plans that cover abortion. Experts said that over time these provisions would have virtually eliminated private abortion coverage, which is now included in most plans. After all, any plans covering abortion would have to forgo a huge new pool of potential customers. From Day One, Obama promised that no one would lose benefits they now enjoy on account of health-care reform. Stupak represented a betrayal of that promise.
Women—particularly pro-choice women—have long been the core of the Democratic Party, and it was time for the party to stand up for them.
There is a realpolitik case to be made for both the Stupak and Nelson amendments. The House bill might not have passed without Stupak, endangering both a health-care proposal that will better millions of lives, and the presidency of Barack Obama, whose long-term success is ultimately essential to the pro-choice cause. Defeating the Nelson amendment caries a risk, too. Senator Nelson has promised to oppose health-care reform without it. In order to make up for his vote, Democrats will have to woo either Joe Lieberman or Olympia Snowe. To do that, they’d almost certainly have to compromise on the public option.
And a few hours after voting the Nelson amendment down, that’s just what Senate negotiators did—tentatively agreeing to pull a full-blooded public option in favor of a privately run nonprofit plan overseen by the same agency that provides health care to federal workers, according to news reports.
Other accounts suggested the public option might yet be alive. Either way, the Senate did the right thing on abortion. The Stupak and Nelson amendments were poison pills, ensuring that the more successful health-care reform was, the more reproductive rights would be restricted.
• Matt Miller: Liberals, Rejoice!This wasn’t just an insult to all the women’s rights activists who worked so hard to get Obama elected. It also meant that health-insurance reform would end up creating some of the same sort of sadistic absurdities that plague the current system. The Hyde amendment, which currently restricts direct federal funding for abortion, makes exceptions for a women’s life, but not her health. That means that a woman with a dangerous pregnancy complication has to wait for it to become deadly before federal insurance will cover a termination. Had it passed the Senate, the Nelson amendment would have subjected all American women to similarly agonizing medical dilemmas.
Last month, Peter Beinart celebrated the Stupak amendment on this site. “By essentially sacrificing abortion and immigrant rights to get conservative Democrats to vote for expanded health-care coverage, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi restored the old hierarchy that between the 1930s and the 1960s helped Democrats establish dominance on Capitol Hill,” he wrote. “Today, to a degree we haven’t seen since then, the Democratic Party is about economic protection first, and cultural freedom second.” Beinart was right that a governing party needs to be a big tent, and that accommodating warring factions sometimes requires ugly compromises. But he was wrong in relegating the forces of “cultural freedom” to the margins. The old New Deal alignments aren’t coming back. Without the forces of social liberalism, there is no Democratic Party, much less a Democratic majority.
The vote against Nelson was a sign that Democratic senators recognize that. In the next few days they’ll have to pay for their moment of principle with other sacrifices. (Indeed, they may still end up watering down reproductive rights to try and lure the senator back). Nevertheless, Tuesday’s vote was a victory. Women—particularly pro-choice women—have long been the core of the Democratic Party, and it was time for the party to stand up for them.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.