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Pelosi Wants Fight on Abortion, Family Planning Funding in the House

House Democrats have been extremely focused over the past couple weeks on the spate of Republican bills and provisions aimed at women’s health and reproductive choice. In particular, there are three bills that would massively roll back a woman’s right to choose or even to access birth control. One, HR3, would basically move the Hyde amendment into statutory law and also include even secondary spending from the federal government, meaning that any company who receives tax subsidies for health insurance, or women who use pre-tax dollars in flexible spending accounts, would have to drop abortion services coverage. This would almost certainly lead insurance companies to withdraw all plans that cover abortion services. The bill also sought to redefine rape, one of the exemptions to the law, as “forcible rape.” After an outcry, Republicans said they would remove the offending language, but to this point, they haven’t.

A second bill, known colloquially as the “Let them Die Act,” bans abortion coverage in the exchanges, but would also repeal part of the 1986 law that requires emergency rooms to administer to patients, if an abortion must be performed on a pregnant woman in conjunction with that treatment. Hospitals would be able to refuse to give that treatment. And a third, the continuing resolution, would eliminate Title X funding for family planning services, severely restricting access to birth control, among other assaults on women’s health.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a blogger conference call, described this series of bills as “the most comprehensive and radical assault on women’s health in our lifetime.” She vowed to fight the Republican actions – which “disrespect the judgment of American women… I don’t even know if they give that a thought” – through public advocacy, essentially making these measures “too hot to handle.” She acknowledged that, with the large Republican majorities in the House, she would not able to stop many of these measures from passing. But she sought to make them so toxic that the Senate wouldn’t be able to touch them.

Both Pelosi and Diana DeGette, co-chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus in the House, stressed that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and the Hyde Amendment is the current governing rule in Congress. “There is no federal funding for abortion,” Pelosi said. “Some of us don’t like that,” DeGette added, but the Hyde Amendment is law. So this is essentially a rear-guard action, to prevent further chipping away at access to safe and legal abortions. But last year’s health care bill rolled back the cause of women’s health in this area, through the Nelson Amendment (which many states have used to block abortion services coverage in the exchanges) and the re-stating of Hyde in an executive order.

I asked DeGette and Pelosi about this. Given that a dozen Democrats support HR 3, does this damage the party’s reputation to the pro-choice community, to say nothing of past efforts on the health care bill? Why should the pro-choice community trust Democrats with their futures?

DeGette replied that there have always been some anti-choice Democrats who come at the debate from a different philosophical view. She said the vast majority of Democrats support the right to choose, and she hoped that as word got out on the extreme nature of these new restrictions, that Democrats and even some Republicans might be able to join them in opposition.

Pelosi concurred. “It’s disappointing (that a dozen Democrats support HR 3) because I don’t think they realize how extreme this is,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t get them on contraception or family planning.”

The Title X defunding could get a vote in the continuing resolution next week, though it’s unclear how the Democrats would go about assuring it. But Pelosi and DeGette were very adamant on the subject. “I tell my constituents that the Republicans want to block access to birth control, and they think I’m crazy. But they’re going to try and eliminate access to reproductive care, including birth control and reproductive choice.” DeGette thought that raised public awareness to this attack would show the real danger to women’s health and create pressure. She said they would whip the vote on this and try to hold Republicans who in the past have voted against efforts to restrict funding for family planning.

As Greg Sargent notes, Pelosi was strident on this issue of family planning. “They are at a different philosophical place, that all engagement has to result in a child. Homosexuality, birth control is not consistent with their belief that it’s all about procreation. They’re going to make an all-out assault on Planned Parenthood. This isn’t about a fair discussion of an honest difference of opinion. They don’t believe in family planning, so they have to do a character assassination on Planned Parenthood.” This was a clear reference to the doctored Live Action videos that have circulated this week, and would shut off access to annual gynecological exams, breast exams, or contraceptive services for hundreds of thousands of low-income women.

Pelosi said their goal was to “win the fight in the public mind” and make these issues so toxic that the Senate couldn’t pass them. She expressed confidence that the President would veto the bills if they came to his desk, “but we can’t let it get to the President’s desk.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen