Women and Health Care Reform

The House has passed both the Senate bill and “fixes” for reconciliation.  Both by more than the minimum number of votes.  Lindsay Beyerstein wrote today in the Nation

Last night, the House of Representatives passed comprehensive health care reform after more than a year of fierce debate. The sweeping legislation will extend coverage to 32 million Americans, curb the worst abuses of the private insurance industry, and attempt to contain spiraling health care costs.

The main bill passed the House by a vote 219 to 212, after which the House approved a package of changes to the Senate bill by a vote of 220 to 211. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama will sign the main bill into law. Then, the Senate will incorporate the House-approved changes through filibuster-proof budget reconciliation, perhaps as early as this week.

What role did women play in passage?  Beyerstein explains

As tea party protests raged outside, it seemed as if abortion might derail health reform. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) insisted that he had the votes to kill the bill. At the last minute, Stupak was placated with an executive order from the president reiterating that the health care reform would not fund elective abortions.

The executive order is a red herring. It won’t impose any further restrictions, it just restates the status quo. Mike Lillis posted a copy of the order at the Washington Independent. The president might as well have reiterated a ban on federal funds for vajazzling. Health care reform was never going to fund vajazzling or abortion, but if Stupak finds the repetition soothing, so be it.

The chair of the pro-choice caucus, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) acquiesced to the Stupak compromise, describing the overall bill as a “strong foundation,” according to John Tomasic of the Colorado Independent. Pro-choice groups will be angry, but realistically, the executive order was the best possible outcome. For a while, it looked like Democrats were going to have to make substantive concessions to Stupak. In the end, he flipped his vote for a presidential proclamation of the status quo.

In a last ditch effort to derail reform, the Republicans tried to reinsert Stupak’s strict anti-abortion language into the reconciliation package. The Republicans were trying to poison the reconciliation bill in order to threaten its chances in the Senate, explains Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent. The gambit failed. When Stupak rose to speak against the motion, he was shouted down by Republican representatives. One unidentified member called Stupak a “baby killer.”

Women who want to repeal the Hyde Amendment (and I’m one of them) are split.  Should health care reform have been the vehicle for repeal?  Anyone who thinks it is appropriate is mistaken. I’m with the pro-choice women in Congress who voted for reform.  I know that NOW and NARAL are upset that the President and Congress are “ignoring” women and “eroding” the right to choose.  I don’t see it that way.  As far as I’m concerned, I agree with Lindsay:  nothing has changed and if Bart needed cover to vote for the bill he got it.  We kept the status quo and Bart got to be called a “baby killer” and vote for the bill.  Millions of women will have access to health care and being a woman will no longer be a pre-existing condition.

Payback for Prochoicers

But I’m with Katha Pollitt.  Women need something

The way I see it, the Democratic Party and the Obama administration owe supporters of women’s rights a huge payback for cooperating on its signature issue.

Her list of suggestions includes full funding for Title X, passage of paycheck fairness, confront maternal mortality, pass CEDAW, and fully fund the Violence Against Women Act.  Not a bad list.  It is hard to pick which should come first, but I would fund the Violence Against Women Act and passing CEDAW.  Pollit says about CEDAW

Pass CEDAW. Jimmy Carter signed it back in 1980, but the United States is one of a handful of countries that have not ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The others? Sudan, Somalia, Iran and a few Pacific islands. Despite the fact that Congress has burdened CEDAW with no fewer than eleven reservations, nearly all of which were placed there by Jesse Helms to please Concerned Women for America and other antifeminist and Christian groups, it still hasn’t come to a vote. So pass it, already–and Helms is dead, so dump the reservations. Don’t have the votes? Vote on it anyway. American women should know which senators think we should have fewer human rights than women in nearly every other democratic country in the world.

I don’t think repeal of the Hyde Amendment is in the cards anytime soon, but I do think we should get everything on Katha’s list.

Women and the Obama Administration

There is the shining example of Michelle Obama.  Then there are the many women who still haven’t gotten over the fact that Hillary did not get to be President.  There is the idea of a Presidential Commision on Women (like the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights).  Then there is the President’s Council on Women and Girls.  Politico reports

After Barack Obama’s election, some in the women’s movement thought big – pushing for a Cabinet-level office, or even a blue-ribbon Presidential Commission on Women.

But when Obama announced his plans Wednesday, he brushed aside those requests.

Instead, he started the White House Council on Women and Girls — a sort of inter-agency task force with no full-time staff, no Cabinet-level leader and no set meeting schedule.

Women’s advocates who filed out of his East Room announcement Wednesday said they were delighted that their issues would get White House-level attention, whatever the forum.

But Obama’s move left others in the women’s movement questioning why he simply wouldn’t give the panel the prestige and heft they feel it deserves. Some activists already are strategizing about new ways to elevate women’s issues, beyond what Obama did.

I know one of the things that President Obama can do to help women.  He can finally ask Congress to radify CEDAW, the Conventionon on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.   Somewhere on a disk that I can no longer read is the text of a speech I gave on an International Women’s Day in the 1990’s on why the United States needed to radify CEDAW but couldn’t mostly because of objections from the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.  And after reading the many reservations conservatives in the Senate wanted to place on the it, many women, including me,  could no longer support its radification.  CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979.  We are one of a handful of countries like North Korea and Sudan not to adopt it. 

I understand that the Obama Administration has already taken steps to start the process, but the trick will be to get Congress to adopt CEDAW with the fewest possible attached  conditions or reservations.  (Think signing statements.)  In her posting on the Nation’s Blog, Betsy Reed calls for the adoption of a “Clean CEDAW“.

What does CEDAW promise? Guaranteed maternity benefits. The right to equal pay. (And no, Lily Ledbetter didn’t give us that. The right to sue after you’ve been discriminated against for years is not the same as the right to be free from discrimination.) A commitment, at the broadest level, to eliminate acts of discrimination against women–i.e., to prohibit them, and to punish them when they do occur.

It’s good stuff. One of the best things about the treaty is that it requires governments periodically to review and evaluate their policies and programs relating to women’s equality, provoking what Human Rights Watch’s Marianne Mollmann calls “a democratic dialogue” about women’s rights, which has already occurred in some of the 184 signatory nations, including Peru.

Another admirable aspect of CEDAW is its stipulation that, when traditional cultural or religious practices collide with women’s rights, the state is obliged to intervene on the side of women.

But there will be problems like a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy which was the big hang-up in 2002.  Reed writes

One of the most egregious [reservations presented] addressed abortion. It read: “Nothing in this convention shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion and in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” As Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center, recently noted, this language was “…drafted to be used as an antiabortion tool. Under U.S. law nearly all abortions, including those needed by women due to serious health problems or fetal abnormalities incompatible with life, are defined as abortions as a ‘method of family planning.'”

Moreover, as Benshoof points out, the inclusion of this provision would undermine women’s access to reproductive health services around the world. Already, CEDAW has been cited in court rulings striking down laws criminalizing abortion in signatory nations, such as Colombia. An endorsement of this qualification by the US it would weaken the legal position of women’s advocates in these cases, giving aid and comfort to abortion rights opponents everywhere.

To pass Congress, we need 67 votes.  But we need to pass a “clean” version.  If Morocco can do it, the United States can do it also.

This past December, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, King Mohammed VI of Morocco lifted the “reservations” that his country had imposed on the implementation of CEDAW, and embraced an unqualified version. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the late Senator Helms if the United States did the same?

So if you are reading this and you agree, call or write you Senator.  And tell Senator Boxer to keep pushing for a clean CEDAW.