Women's Political Aspirations and Reproductive Rights Remain Destructively Tethered

04/24/2015 06:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

This week, pro-life advocates in Congress struck another heavy blow against equality and reproductive justice by contaminating an otherwise uncontroversial anti-human trafficking bill, which had strong bipartisan support, with anti-abortion restrictions. Republicans and many Democrats laud the bill. Senator Cornyn (Texas), the bill's chief sponsor claimed "this will be a good day for the United States Senate and for the victims of human trafficking." But is it really?

The debate on the bill came to reflect the rabidly partisan tone of this Congress, which held Loretta Lynch's confirmation hearing for attorney general hostage until Democrats acquiesced to stipulations that victims of sex trafficking should not be permitted to pay for abortions with funds seized from their traffickers and rapists. Kentucky Senator, Mitch McConnell threatened to delay Lynch's nomination indefinitely until Democrats conceded to the anti-abortion restrictions. They argued that Hyde Amendment provisions, which restrict taxpayer dollars from paying for abortion services except in cases of rape, incest, and to save the woman's life, have long been associated with federal legislation. However, the previous version of the bill proposed collecting funds from human traffickers to aid their victims -- not taxpayers.

Rather than the Hyde Amendment being a perceived as a message of affirmation, it should cause concern for what it represents to the rule of law and the democratic process. Why has women's reproductive equality become so frequently tethered to random legislation that it is now pro forma and without compelling justification? Republicans and now Democrats claim that trafficked rape victims will have access abortion services through the Hyde Amendment's exceptions clauses. That's doubtful.

Ironically, the cost of Ms. Lynch's recent confirmation is another blow against poor women, especially women of color. According to a 2012 study published by the Health Research and Education Trust, more than half of poor women's and girls' pregnancies caused by rape or incest (or that would threaten their health) were not reimbursed by Medicaid. This means that even when the government pledges to support poor women, it doesn't always keep its promises.

In fact, only one-third of poor women and girls who "qualify" actually have their eligible abortions funded by Medicaid -- and states mostly pay for that. The study's authors confirm that such policies "create barriers for women seeking abortion." These are the rape and incest victims the Hyde Amendment was intended to protect. If they aren't protected will trafficking victims fare much better? It's doubtful. Congress does no favors for women when 25 percent of all girls and women who qualify for Hyde Amendment services "are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term."

Nor does anti-abortion legislation keep women safer. A recent study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that women were 14 times more likely to die during or after giving birth to a live baby than to die from complications related to an abortion.

Sadly, women's reproductive equality has become the often trotted out, battered scapegoat in partisan Congressional conflicts and this time, it was intimately linked to Loretta Lynch's confirmation as the nation's next attorney general. Ms. Lynch waited more than 150 days for the Senate to vote on her confirmation -- almost longer than any other nominee. Some pundits claim Republicans' tactics were racially motivated, after all Loretta Lynch is African American and rarely has any white or male candidate for attorney general ever been subjected to such arbitrary delays in his or her confirmation hearing.

Indeed, Ms. Lynch's outstanding credentials were rendered immaterial and respect for the democratic process and rule of law irrelevant in the Senate's most recent clash on reproductive rights in the human trafficking bill. Her confirmation cannot be divorced from the broader unyielding campaign to undermine and diminish women's reproductive rights, because under pressure, Democrats capitulated, striking this most recent deal.

The Democratic compromise now establishes a fund of seized dollars from human traffickers, which may not be used for any healthcare services, despite the fact that healthcare costs are a leading cause of indebtedness and that victims of human trafficking often suffer severe physical and emotional traumas. A separate fund, which may be used for healthcare services, is subject to Hyde Amendment restrictions.

The Senate's delayed confirmation of Ms. Lynch, an imminently qualified lawyer, and its cowardly compromise on women's reproductive rights says a lot about power, privilege, and democracy. It's worth considering who sits at the table when such important legislation is at stake. In the history of the United States, only 31 women have ever been elected to the Senate and currently only 20 serve. This dynamic must change. Compromises such as this one come not only at a cost to reproductive equality, but also to democratic values.