05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Women's Rights, Democrats Should Stand Up, Not Back Down

It's hard to imagine what America would be like today without Democrats who, over the years, refused to surrender their core principles.

In times of political turmoil, when difficult decisions were required, Democrats stood their ground and fought hard for the Civil Rights Act, Social Security, Medicaid, Head Start, campaign finance reform, and other critical legislation. It would have been easy to compromise our values and cave to political pressures. Instead, courageous Democrats left our party a proud legacy built on principle.

Today, however, the Democratic Party is at risk of losing its way and tarnishing that legacy. In November, House Democrats yielded to the demands of a small but vocal anti-choice wing of the party, approving a health reform bill that includes unprecedented anti-choice measures. I was among the millions of American women shocked to learn that a majority of pro-choice Democrats in the House had voted to take away my reproductive rights.

As a Democratic representative of New York's 14th District, I would have done everything in my power to oppose the Stupak amendment. As a leader of one of the most progressive districts in the nation, the representative of the 14th should always stand up and fight for core Democratic principles, such as reproductive choice. But last November, instead of a fight, all we got was silence. Women in New York, and across America, deserve better.

I am a strong advocate of health care reform. My parents lacked health care when they first arrived in the United States as political refugees in the 1970s. But I am also a staunch defender of women's rights. The health care bill as passed by the House is one step closer to affordable health care for most Americans, but it is also one step closer to eliminating reproductive health services for most women.

Deal making is part of the political process. But a core Democratic principle like a woman's right to choose should have never been on the table for negotiation. And it shouldn't be on the table during the final stages of legislative action on health care reform this week. Now is the time to fight hard, not to compromise further. Democrats in the House should beat back any attempt to impinge women's rights as Congress moves toward a final vote on health care reform.

Let's be honest. If there's one thing that separates the two parties, it's that Democrats are the party of principle. And when we stick to our principles, our party wins, and our nation wins. History has shown that, time and again, the rise of the right is a direct result of the Democratic Party's failure to stand up and fight for what we believe.

It's worth taking a moment, then, to remember what makes a Democrat a Democrat.

We are the party of equal rights. That's why we cannot continue to delay on reversing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

We are the party of opportunity. That's why cannot wait any longer for comprehensive immigration reform that increases opportunity, prosperity, and safety in America.

We are the party of hard working families and entrepreneurs. That's why we have to empower our small businesses, and provide assistance to women- and minority-owned firms in particular.

(I spoke at event recently on the need to focus on job creation. Someone asked me if I was really a Republican. It's clear our party has lost its way when New York Democrats think job creation is the sole territory of the GOP.)

Democrats need to provide strong, principled leadership in Washington. We need to stop "legislating in haste and repenting at leisure." We need to stop "voting against the bill before we vote for it." We need to stop being afraid to make moral judgments. We need to stop the hypocritical equivocating that might just strip away the rights of women for which our party has long and proudly fought.

Most of all, Democrats need to stop surrendering our core principles.