Last week’s debacle, when House Republicans pulled a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks at the last minute after protests from some GOP congresswomen about the rape exemptions being too narrow, was some darkly hilarious political theater. Instead, since they had to throw some red meat to the anti-choice fanatics amassing at the annual March for Life, right-wing lawmakers passed an apparent attempt to end insurance funding for abortion by prohibiting any plan eligible for subsidies or tax credits from covering it. This bill is certainly different from the ban on abortions after 20 weeks. But it’s just as bad in most ways.
Because the second bill passed without any controversy, many in the press were lulled into thinking it must somehow be less extreme than the first. The Washington Post described it as “watered-down.” In its lead sentence, Reuters also suggested that the new bill is less extreme: “The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill permanently barring federal funding of abortions on Thursday after Republican leaders dropped harsher anti-abortion legislation due to opposition from some of the party’s moderate lawmakers.” And NPR’s headline described the bill as a ban on federal funding of abortion—in fact, it forbids private insurance coverage of abortion, as federal funding has already been prohibited. This choice was not only misleading; it, too, contributed to the sense that this bill is somehow a more moderate alternative, since it’s about “funding” and not an outright ban of the procedure.
All this coverage gets it all wrong.
First of all, the bill is offered in as much bad faith as the 20-week ban, itself justified by junk science that falsely claims fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks. Meanwhile, the justification for the anti-insurance bill is that taxpayers shouldn’t have to “participate” in abortion by funding it. This is a dumb argument on its surface, as abortion is quite literally the only occasion in which the moral objections of a minority of taxpayers is considered reason enough to cease funding. Certainly, those of us who actually care about life are not allowed to demand the end of the government funding things like war and the death penalty. It’s only when women are having sex that suddenly “moral” objections become an issue.
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It’s also bad faith because the objection to “participating” has been met already. In 2010, Obama signed an executive order disallowing any taxpayer funding or tax credits to be used for abortion in order to appease anti-choice nuts who were blocking the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Insurance companies are already required by law to pay for abortions out of accounts that don’t have any government money in them. The real purpose of this bill is to block private companies from using their own money, paid in premiums, to pay for abortion services. This is quite literally forbidding a private entity from spending private money on a legal service. Is there any other good or service that is legal to sell but illegal to pay for with private funds?
But this bill is also extreme because it’s about banning abortion for huge numbers of women that don’t have the cash on hand to pay for it outright. Anti-choicers may be fanatics, but they aren’t stupid. They realize that the best way to chip away at abortion access is to take it away from those who are culturally, geographically, or financially separated from the kinds of people who report on these political battles. Most journalists make enough money to be able to fork over the $500 in cash for an abortion, so while having our insurance coverage taken away wouldn’t be awesome, it wouldn’t constitute a real obstacle. And many journalists with mainstream national platforms live in metropolitan areas with plenty of abortion clinics, too, meaning the only cash we have to dig up is to pay for the procedure itself—none of the lengthy travel or child-care expenses facing people who live in states that have regulated most of their abortion providers out of existence.
This bill is just a furtherance of the existing anti-choice strategy of singling out the most vulnerable women for abuse. Which makes sense. Regardless of their bleating about “life,” it’s clear that the real purpose of the anti-choice movement is to cling to outdated and misogynist standards regarding sexuality, particularly the belief that women should be publicly shamed and punished for having sex for pleasure or with people with whom they don’t intend to settle down and make babies. While the sexual rules on women have always been vaguely intended to apply to all women, there’s little doubt that the forces of prudery have always had better luck targeting poor and isolated people. To this day, the possibility that you’re going to be labeled a “slut” and treated like garbage for being a sexual person has more to do with your class status than your actual sexual choices. This is just the legal entrenchment of the idea that poor women’s sexuality is somehow more shameful than that of wealthier women.
Neither bill, of course, has a chance of passing the president’s veto pen. But this legislation matters anyway, and not just for symbolic purposes. Passing bills that aren’t expected to go into law is how politicians normalize certain ideas. In this case, with mainstream outlets treating the anti-insurance bill like it’s somehow moderate, the strategy worked like a charm. Now, if Republicans gain hold of all three branches of government, they could very well pass this bill without much of a media blip, because the common wisdom holds that it is “moderate”. But it is anything but moderate. It’s an attempt to make abortion—and on a larger scale, control over your own sexuality—not a right, but a privilege available only to those who can afford to pay a premium for it.