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Call on Women to Get the Job Done Right

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On Tuesday, I had the privilege of participating in a celebration with President Obama and dozens of progressive leaders of the signing of the historic health care reform legislation. And I began to think about how this all came to pass -- and why women are getting the benefits and the protections that they are getting from this bill.

Over the past year, as we at Planned Parenthood and other women's groups fought for health care reform that made sense for all Americans, it was the women in the House and Senate -- and a few good men -- who saved our bacon at every turn. When Senator Barbara Mikulski pushed through the Women's Health Amendment, past the objections of Senators Orrin Hatch and Tom Coburn. When Senator Debbie Stabenow faced down Senator Jon Kyl: He said we shouldn't cover maternity benefits because he wouldn't need them. Her answer? "I bet your mother did."

The important take-away from this epic campaign to pass health care reform that will improve women's lives was the role played by women inside and outside the beltway.

There is understandable outrage about how abortion was treated in the final bill. Some ask why didn't we yell even louder than we did? Why didn't we overturn the Hyde amendment, which has unfairly prevented poor women from having their health insurance -- Medicaid-- pay for abortion? The simple and discouraging truth is that we have an anti-choice House of Representatives. With the help of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund's political action committee, things got better in 2008, with the election of 28 new pro-choice members of the House and, more importantly, eight new pro-choice U.S. senators. But if you're scoring, when the House voted for the first time on the Stupak abortion ban, 64 Democrats voted in favor of the ban. There are way too many members of Congress who are opposed to women's rights and who vote that way every session -- Republicans and Democrats.

If you watched the proceedings Sunday night, and watched the Republican Party try one more time to reinsert the Stupak abortion ban into the health care reform bill, it was pretty poignant that all those who spoke in favor of the ban were male members of Congress, none of whom have ever personally faced an unintended or medically difficult pregnancy. In fact, I challenge anyone to find the word "woman" even mentioned in the debate -- there was a lot of rhetoric about the rights of the unborn, but not even a whisper about the rights of women to determine their future.

Don't get me wrong - there were critical moments of leadership by men as well. President Obama, embracing "the fierce urgency of now," set us on this course more than a year ago. And at a crucial moment, Majority Leader Reid went to the floor of the U.S. Senate to deliver his speech against the Senate version of the Stupak amendment. Despite his opposition to abortion rights, in a true profile of courage, he pointed out that the health care bill was inappropriately being used as a vehicle to litigate abortion.

But where this fight was really joined was in the House of Representatives -- and that's where the women of the House stood like giants. From Congresswoman Lois Capps' early work to stave off an abortion ban in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to Congresswoman Diana DeGette gathering 41 signatures of members who pledged to vote against any final bill with the Stupak ban, these women stood in the way of plenty of men in Congress who were ready to cut a deal, whether with Bart Stupak or the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro, Jan Schakowsky, Nita Lowey, and Louise Slaughter, among others, were women's champions.

And in the last days, when Congressman Stupak and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops threatened to bring down health care reform completely over their narrow demands, the true heroine for women's health was Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She never blinked. In the final hours, when congressional leadership and the White House were scrambling for any vote they could get to reach the magic 216, Speaker Pelosi put herself in the way of the anti-choice steamroller. In private and in public, she vowed that there would be no health care bill if it included the Stupak abortion ban.

And in the final days before the bill was passed, it was the Roman Catholic nuns who most importantly broke with the bishops and the Vatican to announce their support for health care reform. This brave and important move, demonstrating that they cared as much about the health care of families in America as they did about church hierarchy, was a critical demonstration of support. Bart Stupak may not ask the nuns for advice, as he recently announced to the press, but maybe next time he should.

At Planned Parenthood, we're committed to fight to change the egregious Nelson language in the bill that President Obama signed today, which unjustly treats abortion coverage differently than all other health care. As providers of health care to three million people every year, Planned Parenthood health centers are also prepared to roll up their sleeves and help get more Americans the health care they need. We are pleased that the health care reform bill will extend coverage to millions of women and guarantee access to affordable, lifesaving screenings for breast and cervical cancer and other preventive tests. Women will no longer need to live in fear of being dropped by an insurer because of a pre-existing condition. And, in a huge victory for women's reproductive health, this bill will significantly increase insurance coverage of reproductive health care, including family planning.

It has been a long and difficult process to get health care passed, and the work isn't over yet. But we need more than health care; we need women and men elected to office who will stand up for our health and our rights, even when it's hard. So here's to the women leaders in Congress -- and to the nuns -- and to the women everywhere who were counting on them. They need our gratitude and our support.

Cecile Richards is president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

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