Bart Stupak’s Contribution to the Pro-choice Movement

The idea that good could come from the Stupak Amendment, an amendment introduced by Representative Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) that was passed and put into the House health care bill, would likely infuriate any self-respecting pro-choicer. The amendment purports to continue the “status quo” in separating federal dollars from funding abortion. But in reality, as many pro-choice and neutral groups have proven, this amendment threatens to take women many steps backward in their access to abortion coverage. By making sure that no individual who receives a government subsidy—a bounty of new customers for insurance companies—can buy into any plan that offers abortion coverage, insurance companies are incentivized to stop offering it in order to tap into this new market.

Glimmers of a silver lining are beginning to show through the anti-choice storm clouds, however: the pro-choice movement has galvanized in a campaign against this amendment in a manner not witnessed in this country for quite some time.

For many women, the label “feminist” has become a dirty word. Even liberal-leaning news outlets such as The New York Times, NPR and MSNBC have taken to calling the pro-choice movement “pro-abortion”—and what woman wants to label herself pro-abortion? A large percentage of young women are passively supportive of the pro-choice cause at best, and at worst are apathetic or even adverse to becoming involved.

Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that legalized a women’s right to choose an abortion, happened nearly 37 years ago. We now have a divide between those who remember life with illegal abortions, their memories branded with a sense of urgency and danger, and those who have only known safe and legal ones. As The New York Times said in a recent article, “The 30- to 40-somethings…are more concerned with educating their children about sex, and generally too busy to be bothered with political causes. The 25-and-under crowd, animated by activism, sees a deeper threat in climate change or banning gay marriage or the Darfur genocide than in any rollback of reproductive rights.” Young people of our generation have yet to come out in forces anything like those from the 60’s and 70’s women’s rights movement.

The pro-choice movement witnessed many concessions and setbacks in recent times: the push for mandatory sonograms, counseling and waiting periods; “conscience” clauses allowing physicians and pharmacists to deny women birth control access; the brutal assassination of Doctor George Tiller, among others. And there have always been a core group of pro-choice women fighting these setbacks, mourning losses and celebrating victories.

But the Stupak Amendment has captured the attention of those 25-40 somethings that aren’t interested in political causes or feel other causes are more important. Since the House vote, pro-choice groups have seen an inundation of funding and support—Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, recently told the Times, “The reaction [to Stupak] has been phenomenal, like a match dropped on dry kindling.” A consortium of pro-choice groups, including Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and NARAL Pro-choice, organized a lobbying day on December 2nd that had such a high turnout that the overflow room was reported to hold 200 people.

The pro-choice fight is not only seeing a huge revitalization, but it is moving into the mainstream. Even Cosmo has gotten into the action, running a recent piece called Are Your Rights in Jeopardy? that linked to a Planned Parenthood abortion ban petition. Women seem to be comfortable coming out against the amendment and finally standing up for the rights that have been slowing sliding away from us.

The health care fight is now in the Senate, where Stupak-esque language is already being introduced by Senator Ben Nelson (D -Neb.), although has a slim chance of garnering enough votes to pass. If the Senate passes a health reform bill, women will be holding their breath in hopes that the Stupak language will be taken out in conference.

But no matter how the Senate votes and now matter what the final bill looks like, one important thing has happened to the pro-choice movement: its new generation is paying attention. Hopefully that can be the only lasting effect that Bart Stupak has on women’s rights.

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