Compromiser-in-Chief No Backstop for Women's Rights

11/09/2009 08:37 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The House passed an "historic" health care bill Saturday night - there was much celebration on the Democratic side and the proverbial wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Republicans.

The bill was historic, all right. Along with the first federal abortion ban in history passed in 2003 (and affirmed by the Supreme Court in 2007), this bill went further than any action to restrict access to abortion in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade gave women the right to choice.

Unable to hold their caucus together, the House leadership went all in with reproductive choice as the bargaining chip to get a bill -- any bill -- passed. Never mind that it deeply undermined the rights of the majority (women) in this country.

The Stupak amendment, backed by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who lobbied heavily for it, eliminates abortion services from health care coverage altogether. Going beyond an earlier compromise that would have allowed insurers to cover abortion but not with federal funding, it bars abortion coverage not only in any public plan, but essentially in private ones as well. Insurers participating in health care insurance exchanges are prohibited from offering coverage at all, even if a woman pays for it using her own money.

The pro-choice women in the House put up a mighty battle, but there were not enough of them to win it. They were reportedly outraged and emotional, and broke off negotiations when George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, told them to get used to the fact that the House is now majority anti-abortion. The vote on the amendment (240-194) proved him right.

Women's groups are furious, though they're stopping short of outright condemnation of Nancy Pelosi and the House leadership. Instead they're calling on President Obama to refuse to sign a bill with the Stupak provisions in it.

Don't count on it.

The Compromiser-in-Chief signaled long ago that he's willing to look the other way on abortion rights. Obama's speech at Notre Dame last spring was all about "common ground" on abortion, but if you listened with half an ear you heard that all the concessions he mentioned had to come from the pro-choice side. And according to the New York Times, he "listened intently" to Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the Archbishop of Boston, when O'Malley told him at Ted Kennedy's funeral that the bishops wouldn't support any health reform with abortion coverage of any kind.

Well, the House (and the Senate is expected to follow) no doubt got the message, because they've "consessioned" away any hope of reproductive choice for women who need health insurance. I suppose a very tiny minority at the top of the income heap (maybe a few female bond traders on Wall Street) won't be affected because they can just tap into the fat bonuses provided by Congress for enough money to pay for an abortion if they need it.

As for the rest of us, our daughters and granddaughters, welcome to the new reality. You're now officially a second class citizen. The House of Representatives said so on Saturday night, and your President did not draw a line in the sand on women's rights when asked if he could live with it. He punted, saying it's a health care bill, not an abortion bill.

Unfortunately, that's the change we now can believe in.