Back to School With Senator Nelson

By Erin Matson, NOW Action Vice President

A few months have passed since Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) roared “no federal funding for abortion!” while whispering under his breath, “and no women paying for it themselves, either.”

If time, legislative maneuvers and purposefully arcane anti-abortion language have left you confused as to how, exactly, health insurance reform could eviscerate women’s fundamental right to choose if, when and how she has a family — this post is for you.

While most girls around the country enjoyed a much-needed holiday break, the virulently anti-abortion rights Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) continued to work overtime in his pursuit of overturning Roe v. Wade for tomorrow’s women.

Undaunted by the 54-vote majority failure of his Nelson-Hatch Amendment on the Senate floor, an amendment mirroring Mr. Stupak’s Stupak-Pitts Amendment in the House bill, Mr. Nelson approached Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) with the arrogant aplomb of an only child.

(We have all seen how one bully can wreak total havoc upon the popular will, as Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) did in decimating the public option. Why bother with voting when you can whine?)

To break it down simply, the male legislators are acting like children. We can get angry and vow to do better the next time, or we can fix it right now. As justice doesn’t take excuses, the latter is the only acceptable option.

The men have declared girls not allowed in health insurance reform. In reforming this nation’s broken, profit-driven care model, they’re getting two steps closer to this nation acknowledging health care as a human right, while backing women’s human rights into a tree.

On the House side, we have Mr. Stupak’s amendment, which bars women from using their own private funds to access private insurance plans covering abortion, as most such plans currently do, unless they purchase a hypothetical “abortion rider.”

To consider that matter in its complexity, let’s move to an analogy from grade school: lunch tickets and tampon machines. Everybody needs to use lunch tickets to buy lunch, but only the girls need to use tampon machines to buy tampons at school – and that requires quarters.

Mr. Stupak’s proposal says that the moment anyone in a school qualifies for free or reduced-cost lunches, and nobody wants a kid to starve, none of the kids in the lunch ticket line can get quarters back. The girls could buy tampons with those quarters!

If a school wanted to keep their tampon machines on the wall, all girls would be required purchase and wear specially marked fanny packs to carry their quarters from home. And if a girl didn’t buy that fanny pack and wear it all the time, only to get her first period — well, this is about morality. As the thinking goes, every girl needs to carefully consider using tampons, and there is value in discouraging their use; some religions think it’s a sin.

Unfortunately, we aren’t actually talking about a pair of stained pants; we are talking about a woman’s right to abortion. Without protecting that right women die in all sorts of horrifying manners: by pumping Lysol into their vaginas, throwing themselves down the stairs and abusing prescription and illegal drugs in attempts to induce miscarriages.

Of course pregnancy can produce a child, and that is something worth celebrating when the women involved are willing, healthy and safe. But unintended pregnancies, medically unsafe pregnancies and pregnancies spurred by a criminal can, in the absence of access to safe and legal abortion, be the first step to a woman’s violent and completely preventable death.

Back in the Senate schoolyard, Mr. Nelson tried to pull this same fatal nonsense. It didn’t work. The Senate voted 54-45 to defeat Mr. Nelson’s Stupak Abortion Coverage Ban. With Mr. Nelson’s vote on the line, he and Mr. Reid created a brand-new Stupak Abortion Coverage Ban with new language and restrictions toward the same end.

The resulting Nelson Abortion Check Provision as adopted into the final Senate bill will require at least one health insurance plan in each state to not cover abortion (whether or not there is a plan offered that does cover abortion), and all plans that do cover abortion will be required to accept two checks: one for abortion, and one for everything else.

Like the Stupak Abortion Coverage Ban, the Nelson Abortion Check Provision gets complex. In this instance complexity is an enemy of justice, particularly as those in power had lead-time to create misleading sound bites for their heist of women’s rights.

Mr. Nelson and Mr. Reid have declared they are ensuring an acceptable “segregation of funds” so that “no federal funds will be used for abortion.” Let’s go back to the lunch tickets and tampon machines.

First, all children would live in an area with at least one school that doesn’t have tampon machines. Nobody would think to ask until it’s too late, as currently the overwhelming majority of schools offer them to girls who need them (schools had until this point taken as a matter of trust that no girl would use a tampon she didn’t truly need).

These no-tampon schools would exist in overwhelming numbers regardless of whether students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches; that wouldn’t matter anymore. Mandating no-tampon schools would of necessity force many to take down their machines.

Back in the lunch ticket line, something stranger still awaits. Girls and boys in schools with tampon machines would be required to pay for their week’s supply of lunch tickets at two carts. Standing in the first line, they would pay nearly all of their money, although they would be required to stand in a second line with a home-dyed red cent. The dye would help everyone to remember those cents could be converted into quarters, which girls could receive in change to buy tampons.

Every school would be required to set up two entire lunch systems: one for the lunch money, and one for the red cents. Just like the children, schools would need to do separate financial accounting for each system, although the schools offering tampon machines would have the added threat of annual audits from the Secretary of Health and Human Services to insure those red cents never touch a dollar.

The bottom line of both the Nelson Abortion Check Provision and the Stupak Abortion Coverage Ban is one and the same: their requirements are purposefully ridiculous, confusing and burdensome to the point that no for-profit company in its right mind would continue to offer abortion coverage.

Some argue it’s silly to quibble over abortion while a robust piece of signature legislation wends its way to the White House. Abortion is painted as a side issue, divisive and fraught with culture fighting.

This doesn’t at all reflect the experience I had while holding a crying woman still wearing her maternity clothes at a National Organization for Women rally against all abortion funding bans in New York City last December. Her story was heartbreaking: “life” was no longer a “choice” for the twins she had desperately wanted.

She asked me why nobody was talking about the medical side of the abortion funding debate. Her twins had a condition that caused one, no longer alive, to literally toxify the other to death. For her, abortion was indeed medical health care, and something not considered worthy of even private insurance funding under either of the plans Mr. Stupak and Mr. Nelson have presented to the House and Senate for merger into a final bill.

Having given tacit and explicit approval to the various plots against women’s right to safe and legal abortion, in violation of a campaign promise, the president appears to be on the verge of signing into law some variation of the greatest rollback of women’s access to legal abortion since it was recognized as constitutionally protected in 1973.

Indeed, it is a violation of one of his core principles of health care reform: that nobody would lose coverage they already had.

Should he sign a sweeping abortion restriction into law, however, President Obama will not have the last word. As activists, we have no choice to throw up our hands and say boys will be boys, for girls will still be girls. One of three women in this country will have an abortion. We must act immediately, or we will be forced to keep asking: Are you there, Obama? It’s me, Margaret.

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