03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011 What Cost?

The recent debate on health care reform has brought new focus to the important issue of reproductive choice -- and a clear understanding that it cannot be taken for granted.

As the Senate prepares now to take up its version of a massive health care overhaul, pro-choice Americans are watching closely to see if the Senate will sell out the reproductive rights of women, just as the Democratic leadership did in the U.S. House. The potential ramifications of any legislation that would eliminate women's reproductive health choices -- effectively discriminating against American women -- will undoubtedly reverberate to the 2010 elections, and beyond.

The renewed focus on reproductive choice was triggered by the House's actions. In the frenzy to pass a health care bill -- any bill -- Nancy Pelosi and House majority leadership allowed a vote on the now-infamous Stupak Amendment. Sponsors of the amendment misrepresented their efforts as a move to stop federal funding for reproductive choice. In fact, there is already a ban on federal funding for abortion. What Stupak did was effectively ban insurance coverage for most abortions from all public and private health plans in the new health exchange. Translation: it would make it nearly impossible for any American woman to obtain insurance coverage for abortion.

This travesty took place on the Democrats' watch. They cannot explain it away, and they cannot deny that they had complete control over this amendment's viability. This was an outrageous "compromise" that constituted no compromise at all. House Democrats, determined to push a health care reform bill this year, decided it was acceptable to sacrifice women's current reproductive health rights in the process.

The most unfortunate fall-out from this vote is that Congress is now legislating policy that is discriminatory against women, particularly low-income women. Abortion can be an expensive procedure, and many women, who use protection and practice responsible sex, still find themselves faced with an unwanted pregnancy for a multitude of reasons. The price tag attached to an abortion often means that, while every woman has the right to an abortion, only wealthier women have access to it.

Like it or not, abortion is a legal medical procedure and a decision that has to be left to doctors and families. Why are women being singled out and denied coverage, even through private plans? The claim that abortion is preventable or elective only underlines the discriminatory aspect of the Stupak Amendment. The truth is, countless treatments for preventable conditions, such as smoking cessation or the effects of obesity, are covered by private and public insurance plans. Would Congress ever offer amendments to unduly punish people who act 'irresponsibly' and make poor lifestyle choices by smoking, failing to wear seat belts or eating unhealthy foods? Of course not.

We do not, as a society, say, "I don't want my tax dollars to care for someone who has been in a car crash and didn't have a seat belt on." It sounds ludicrous. We all pay for people's regrettable decisions, and the financial impact of these 'preventable' medical needs is staggering. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, $96.7 billion is spent on public and private health care combined annually due to smoking. Each year, each household spends $630 in federal and state taxes for expenses related to smoking. A new report released this week projects that in 10 years, 21% of all medical costs will go to treat diseases linked to obesity up from 9% we spend now.

Congress, the Senate and the President need to understand that women's reproductive health deserves the same equitable treatment that these other preventable medical procedures enjoy. It certainly must not be used as a bargaining chip in the rush to pass one of the largest legislative initiatives of our time. In fact, if the controlling Democrats cannot get their own majorities to agree on a health care compromise, that should make it clear that there are major problems that need to be addressed before dumping another expensive, government-run program on the American people.

As difficult as it is for real Republicans like us to admit, we've seen misguided efforts like the Stupak Amendment from extremists in our own party far too often. We have sadly watched as more and more women and 'moderate' voters have left our party because they believed the Democratic Party would do anything and everything to protect our individual freedom of reproductive choice. In one vote, that assumption was erased and pro-choice Americans are outraged.