The Pro-Choice Crowd Fights Back

While most abortion rights groups are up in arms about the restrictions in the health-care bill, Planned Parenthood tells Dana Goldstein it can still roll back some of the limitations.

Mark Ralston / AP Photo

In the aftermath of Sunday’s historic health-care vote, Planned Parenthood says it is confident it can work with the White House to craft regulatory language softening some of the anti-abortion requirements inserted into the final bill by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE), even as other pro-choice groups denounce the legislation and criticize Democratic lawmakers for making too many compromises on reproductive rights to get it passed.

“Politically, it’s unfortunate that the president was put in a position to sign this executive order,” Planned Parenthood’s Rubiner said. “But the important thing is that substantively, it has no impact on the force of the underlying law.”

More Daily Beast writers weigh-in on Obama’s health-care win The senator’s language, reiterated in an executive order from President Barack Obama that sealed the bill’s final passage in the House, requires women and their employers to write out two monthly checks to insurers, one for abortion coverage and another for all other health services. In a complex accounting requirement that a group of George Washington University researchers predict will eventually discourage insurance companies from providing any abortion coverage at all, the insurers would have to segregate abortion funding from all the new federal subsidy payments they will receive to bring approximately 17 million new customers into the private insurance system.

“We’re going to try and work with the administration in order to make this the least cumbersome as possible,” said Laurie Rubiner, vice president of public policy at Planned Parenthood, which supported the bill. She declined to offer more details to avoid revealing the family planning organization’s strategy to opponents of abortion rights. “There are ways through the regulatory process that we could ease some of these administrative processes,” she said.

Despite Obama’s promise to Rep. Bart Stupak and other pro-life Democrats that the White House would enforce the Nelson restrictions faithfully, Rubiner describes herself as “very optimistic” that their implementation could be tweaked. “Kathleen Sebelius is a tremendous secretary of Health and Human Services. She wants what’s best for women,” she said. “I hope she’ll be very open to working with us, certainly to stay within the confines of the new law, but to do what’s right.”

Meanwhile, other pro-choice organizations are taking a vastly different tone on the health-care vote. Both NARAL: Pro-Choice America and the National Organization for Women said they opposed the legislation and had harsh words for Democrats.

In a letter to supporters, NARAL President Nancy Keenan said that although the health bill expands access to maternity care and family-planning services, the Nelson language constitutes “an unacceptable bureaucratic stigmatization” that left her “extremely disappointed” and led NARAL to decline to endorse the bill.

Said NARAL political director Elizabeth Shipp: “Do I think the Democratic Party takes women for granted and pro-choice voters for granted? You bet I do.”

NOW has a longer list of complaints, saying the legislation rewards insurance companies that for decades have denied customers access to necessary medical procedures. “The bill contains no clear pathway to the public option, much less single-payer,” NOW President Terry O’Neill told The Daily Beast. “And it allows some gender rating”—employers of more than 100 people will still be able to charge women more for insurance coverage because they tend to use more health-care services than men.

On Sunday, after news of the executive order prohibiting federal funding of abortion broke, NOW sent out a press release titled “President Obama Breaks Faith With Women” that described the organization as “incensed.” O’Neill said Monday: “I recognize there are things in this health-care bill that are positive looking, but my job is to tell the truth about the impact of the bill on women… We thought as a policy matter, women as a whole are worse off with this bill than they are with the status quo.”

Planned Parenthood, for its part, is resisting finger-pointing at Obama and pro-choice Democratic members of Congress. “Politically, it’s unfortunate that the president was put in a position to sign this executive order, and we regret that,” Rubiner said. “But the important thing is that substantively, it has no impact on the force of the underlying law.”

Where the pro-choice community seems fully united is in its plan to use its fundraising prowess to make Stupak pay at the ballot box for his months-long push to put abortion at the center of the health-care debate, even though initial drafts of the reform legislation made no mention of the issue.

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“If there’s anybody who is the No. 1 target, it’s Bart Stupak,” said NARAL’s Shipp. “Stupak was the face and the name behind these disgusting politics where you’re willing to throw women under the bus because you want your 15 minutes of fame.”

Stupak faces a primary challenge from Connie Saltonstall, a pro-choice county commissioner who has seen donations skyrocket in recent days. The Feminist Majority Foundation released an angry press release Sunday night attacking Stupak as “sanctimonious” and “extreme” and vowing “no more free rides” on Election Day for Democrats who oppose abortion rights. But the group’s president, Eleanor Smeal, told The Daily Beast she still celebrated final passage of the health-care reform bill.

“If you turn down half a loaf, you get nothing,” Smeal said. “Given the realities of the vote count, I am glad that 15 million people will have access to Medicaid, most of whom will be women, and another 17 million will have access to these state insurance exchanges. I think to have nothing would have been horrible.”

Dana Goldstein is an associate editor and writer at The Daily Beast. Her work on politics, women's issues, and education has appeared in The American Prospect, Slate, BusinessWeek, The New Republic, and The Nation.