Another bill, same abortion battle

Coverage of women's preventive care garners a predictable response

By Tracy Clark-Flory
December 4, 2009 8:01AM (UTC)
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Everyone should be happy, right? The Senate voted Thursday to approve a measure that requires full coverage of preventive healthcare for women, addressing recent concerns on both sides of the political divide that new guidelines on breast and cervical cancer screenings could prevent insurance coverage of lifesaving care. Alas, just as that hole was plugged, though, another leak has sprung: Anti-choice activists argue that the amendment will require abortion coverage -- funded by taxpayer dollars.

The relevant part of Democrat Barbara Mikulski's amendment requires that insurance plans cover "preventive care and screenings [for women] ... as provided for in comprehensive guidelines supported by the Health Resources and Services Administration." That means that authority to determine the forms of preventive care that insurers must cover would be given to the health and human services secretary -- or in the carefully chosen words of, "pro-abortion" Democrat Kathleen Sebelius. In a letter to Congress, the National Right to Life Committee cautioned "that authority could be employed in the future to require all health plans to cover abortions." However, there's one major problem with that argument: The Senate bill explicitly states that abortion coverage cannot be mandated.


On the other side of this ever-widening chasm, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards  didn't bother to engage with the anti-choice argument and instead issued the following statement: "Women of childbearing age spend 68 percent more in out-of-pocket health care costs than men, in part because of reproductive health-related needs. It is time that women’s health is made a priority, and providing affordable access to essential care is key." She also offered the reminder that 90 percent of the care provided by Planned Parenthood clinics is "preventive" -- whether it's offering contraception to prevent unplanned pregnancies or testing and treatment of STDs to prevent the spread of disease -- and abortion is not defined as such.

Beyond the divisive issue of abortion coverage, there is bipartisan concern over the cost and distraction. Sen. Russ Feingold voted against the amendment, citing the projected cost of $940 million over 10. In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times Thursday morning, Gail Collins argued that the bill was derailing the healthcare debate. "The Democrats, terrified by cries of 'rationing!' are now trying to amend the bill to expand insurance coverage of health care screenings for women," she wrote, while "Republicans seem bent on making sure that every single 40-year-old woman in America gets a free mammogram even if she never sees a doctor for anything else for the rest of her life." Meanwhile, "a lot of women have no health insurance and no mammograms at all," she said.

I honestly don't know whether this bill was a distraction -- a response to the unmerited Republican claim of "rationed care" -- or a necessary defense of women's basic healthcare rights. But I will tell you that the audio from a scene from one of my favorite movies, "What's Eating Gilbert Grape," comes to mind in which Leonardo DiCaprio's charming character, an autistic teenager, shouts repetitively in a singsongy manner: "We're not going anywhere! We're not going anywhere! We're not going anywhere!"

Tracy Clark-Flory

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