Health Care Reform, Abortion Politics, and Nihilism

26 Mar

It’s been a few days now, but I still start pacing and speaking inappropriately loudly whenever health care reform and abortion coverage comes up. Regardless of what the actual effect of Obama’s executive order turns out to be, we’re still looking at the worst abortion restrictions in some 30 years. Hopes of repealing the terrible Hyde amendment anytime soon took a severe beating, and experts say the Nelson amendment is likely to do nearly as much damage to private insurance coverage for abortion as the Stupak amendment.

Last week Michelle Goldberg made the case that despite this awful rollback of reproductive rights, feminists should still support the bill. I pretty much agree. I’m basically just thankful I’m not one of the 41 pro-choice representatives who pledged not to restrict reproductive rights and then had to go back on their word or vote against a bill that, despite its shortcomings, will give 30 million people health insurance and be “the greatest expansion of the social safety net in a generation.”

But I’m still infuriated about how we got there. As Goldberg writes:

    Anti-abortion forces have had the advantage in this fight because they’re willing to sacrifice the health of millions on the altar of their ideology. Their nihilism gives them leverage.

That the Republicans—who would never in a million years vote for Obama’s fantasy basketball pick let alone his administration’s most important piece of legislation—would engage in this kind of nihilism is, of course, so entirely unsurprising I can’t even be that outraged. Yelling about abortion was just good politics on their part—and if they don’t give a fuck about people’s access to health care in general, I suppose you can’t really blame them for not caring about women’s health.

But I can barely find the words to express my disgust at the handful of anti-choice Democrats—Stupak, Nelson, and company—who held up reform at every step of the process and even at (quite literally) the 11th hour were pushing for still tighter abortion restrictions. These so-called Democrats, who claim to believe in the goals of health care reform, threw enough temper tantrums and told enough outright lies that they managed to get their way. And they only were able to do that because they could offer a credible threat that if they didn’t get their way, they would sink the entire bill.

Can we please take a minute to consider how ridiculous that is?

At the press conference announcing they’d wrangled the executive order from the White House, Stupak proudly said: “There was a principle that meant more to us than anything and that was the sanctity of life.

Ok, so there are a few obvious problems with this. First, “the sanctity of life” is one of those buzz words that doesn’t actually mean anything. Second, despite what Stupak goes on to say (in that Midwestern drawl that almost makes me ashamed to be a Minnesotan), this was never about “protecting those unborn children.” If they actually cared about reducing the number of abortions—if that really meant more to them than anything—they would have fought for universal health care coverage at all costs. Because nothing saves unborn children (and also born children if that’s more your thing) like better health coverage. So no, this was less about abortions and more about who pays for them; less about “unborn children” and more about born adults—specifically those adults who like to judge other adults and self-righteously sniff, “Well, I don’t want my hard-earned tax dollars paying for their mistakes.” But, of course, it wasn’t even about that because federal funding of abortion was never, ever going to be allowed in the health care reform bill. The faintest whisper of the idea of federal funding of abortion (oh the horror!) never came within 500 miles of this bill. In fact, folks worked fucking hard to ensure that the unjust status quo—in which poor women are routinely and systematically denied insurance coverage for a legal medical procedure—was maintained, in the hope that health care reform could progress smoothly without a detour into the divisive land of abortion politics. Naïve, you say? Um, ya think?

But what really gets me is that even though this was so clearly about politics, not principles, Stupak can stand up there and declare: “There was a principle that meant more to us than anything and that was the sanctity of life.” And a whole lot of people not only believe him but also think that commitment to one’s “pro-life” beliefs is an alright reason to let millions suffer and thousands die because they lack health insurance. Maybe it’s not one they would personally agree with, but hey, if you think abortion is murder, you gotta stick to your principles, amirite?

And that right there is the problem. In our political discourse, opposition to abortion is seen as a moral position, while support for abortion rights is seen as a political position. This imbalance allows anti-choice politicians to hid behind an abstract principle like the “sanctity of life” and somehow avoid making the tough compromises for the greater good that are required of everyone else. Their “moral” opposition places them above reproach while the rest of us are expected to get down to the nitty-gritty, the give-and-take, the bitter concessions of actual policy-making.

And I, for one, am so fucking tired of it. I believe it is immoral to force a woman to have a child against her will. I believe it is a violation of human rights to deny women the right to abortion. I believe that with the same strength of conviction as a zealous anti-choicer who believes abortion is the straight-up murder of an unborn child. Furthermore, I also happen to believe that it’s immoral and a violation of human rights to deny anyone health care. I believe in these things because of my absolute moral principles. Yet I live in a society where not everyone agrees with me and work within a political system that demands compromises. (And, unlike some people, I don’t inhabit a fantasy world that revolves around me and is full of unicorns and easy answers.)

Some say reproductive rights advocates made a strategic mistake in this health care reform battle: we should have pushed for more at the beginning so we wouldn’t be left with nothing to negotiate away. Ok. But also—it’s really fucking hard to battle nihilism disguised as principles. And we need to put the blame squarely where it belongs: with the anti-choice Democrats and Republicans who cared more about politics than what’s right. In the end, we lost this round because we believe in a woman’s right to abortion and every person’s right to quality health care coverage. And the opposition cared about neither.

Crossposted from maya’s (l)inklings.

5 Responses to “Health Care Reform, Abortion Politics, and Nihilism”

  1. Kripa March 26, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    Spot on. That’s…all I have to say on that. Spot on.

  2. tashana March 26, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Question: what’s the best response to someone who pontificates about the “sanctity of life” and the natural “right to life”? I’ve had a conversation recently with a severely religious person (not that being religious is bad! I’m religious, but this guy was… wow) about abortion in general, and his opinion is basically “no matter what the circumstance, one cannot justify killing any human being because every human has the right to life,” which, hey, I’m fine with if that’s his personal moral philosophy, but he honestly believes that this personal moral philosophy should be made into law, so I take issue with it in that regard.

    I’ve tried different arguments but he won’t budge his thinking at all. Anyone have any suggestions about this “sanctity of life” buzzword?

  3. Sid March 26, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    What George Carlin said still rings true, now more than ever…

    Also, @tanshana… I’m not saying that you should give up arguing with this person, but I will say that it sounds like he has intractably deluded himself into his point of view. It’s really easy to take a point of view like “all life is sacred” and put your blinkers on and deny every single other argument, even sensible ones. Just stick by your guns. At the least he could probably respect that your opinion isn’t going to change, either…

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    [...] up. Regardless of what the actual effect of Obama’s executive order turns out to be, …Continue Reading… Cancel [...]

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