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Sally Steenland

Sally Steenland

Posted: December 22, 2009 02:16 PM

The Scarlet Letter Revisited: Sen. Nelson and Abortion Shaming

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It's been a while since we made women stitch scarlet A's to their clothes as one of their many punishments for having babies out of wedlock. That kind of public shaming--being shunned and branded as a harlot, slut, sinner, whore--went out of style a few hundred years ago. But a new version of female shaming, 21st century style, has just been written into the Senate version of the health care bill.

It has to do with women and sex--and abortion. In the Senate bill, courtesy of Sen. Ben Nelson, if a woman wants insurance coverage in the new health exchange for abortion care--which is now offered seamlessly as part of over 80-percent of all typical employer health insurance plans--she will have to write two separate checks. One check--the good check--pays for all her health insurance coverage except abortion care. The second check--the bad check--pays for that.

Don't for a minute think this is necessary. For those who object to the possible mingling of taxpayer dollars with abortion payments by private insurance plans, a compromise amendment by Rep. Lois Capps already solved that problem by designating a way to segregate funding. The segregation was clear and well defined--and similar to the way religious groups that get federal funding to provide social services segregate those funds so that public money is not used for proselytizing. The only reason to force women write two checks is to stigmatize abortion and the women who get might them.

The Senators who did this claim religious conviction for their actions. They speak of conscience, morality, and protecting "innocent" life. I believe they are sincere. But I am a person of faith too--and my conscience tells me that women who make serious life decisions about when to take on the responsibility of parenthood should never be stigmatized. Nor should they be faced with the precarious situation of having to scrape together money for an abortion they can't afford or continuing a pregnancy they do not want or cannot safely carry to term. My religious beliefs tell me--and my life experience shows me--that women who wrestle with such deeply intimate personal decisions should be trusted and supported, not penalized or shamed.

Back in the 1970s I was just out of college and teaching high school. I came down with a serious pelvic infection that put me in the hospital for two days. Afterwards, I went to my internist--a prominent doctor who was on the admissions committee of Georgetown University medical school and had always been extremely nice to me. But this time, he looked at me and said, "Well that's what you get for having sex."

More than 30 years later, I remember his exact words--but even more, I remember the tone in which they were spoken--a toxic mix of disapproval, judgment and satisfaction.

I was brought back to my doctor's "scolding finger" this weekend when I read about the abortion restrictions in the Senate bill.

In terms of the big picture, it is crucial to pass health reform legislation, despite serious flaws in both the House and Senate bills. But as the two bills are reconciled over the next few weeks, the moral high ground on abortion should not be monopolized by one side. Those of us--legislators and members of the public--who are pro-choice should rightfully claim religious belief, religious liberty and conscience in our arguments as well. We should fight to improve the legislation so that it doesn't punish women for doing nothing more than using their own money to purchase comprehensive private insurance. The rights of religious liberty and conscience are core American values--and ones that are deeply embedded in the pro-choice community.