What’s Next? A Massive Fight Over Women’s Reproductive Health

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Demonstrators across Madison Avenue during a women's march, Saturday, January 21, 2017, in New York. 

President Donald Trump and his GOP congressional allies have come right out of the gate with a multi-pronged assault on abortion rights, a risky gambit that could complicate Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and install a new justice on the Supreme Court.

Women were already riled up after Trump’s election, as evidenced by the millions of protesters who took to the streets in Washington, D.C., and around the globe in a woman-organized march that featured reproductive health as a leading theme. Adding to the sea of pink “pussy” hats sported by marchers were hundreds of pink T-Shirts, signs, and banners supporting Planned Parenthood, the event’s “Exclusive Premiere Sponsor.”

As if to demonstrate just how tone-deaf they are to women and to the majority of Americans who say abortion should be legal, Republicans within days of the march restricted reproductive health on several fronts. Trump not only revived but dramatically expanded a global gag rule that bans federal international aid for groups that perform or even advise women about abortions. 

Less noticed, but no less outrageous to abortion-rights advocates on and off Capitol Hill, was a House vote Wednesday to approve a bill that bans any insurance company that offers abortions from participating in the Affordable Care Act’s health exchanges or offering coverage to federal workers. In a characteristic bit of GOP doublespeak, Republicans cast the bill as a ban on taxpayer money for abortions. But federal law already bars public funding for the procedure. The real purpose, the bill’s opponents say, is to force insurance companies not to cover abortions.

It was just one of more than a dozen anti-abortion bills that House Republicans have already introduced in this Congress, including initiatives to ban the transport of minors seeking abortions across state lines, and to criminalize the procedure with no exception through “personhood” legislation that would even take aim at contraception. Not to mention House Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to include a ban on Medicaid reimbursements for Planned Parenthood in the budget reconciliation bill that Republicans will use to begin repealing the Affordable Care Act.

Congressional Republicans have approved these and many other anti-abortion bills before, but President Barack Obama vetoed them. Now GOP lawmakers are firing with real bullets. They may be in for a surprise. The GOP assault on Planned Parenthood may play well with the anti-abortion protesters who will convene on the capitol for their annual March for Life on Friday. But 57 percent of Americans support legal abortion, according to the Pew Research Center. And 58 percent of voters favor continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood, a poll by Politico and Harvard University found last year, including almost half of Trump voters.

“I don’t think this is what voters want,” says Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, which has been flooded since Election Day with contributions, volunteers, phone calls, and emails from both women and men eager to defend women’s rights and tell their stories. Planned Parenthood has also received hundreds of thousands of contributions since November 8, including more than 80,000 to a fund named for Vice President Mike Pence, a longtime abortion foe bent on defunding Planned Parenthood. NARAL Pro-choice America has seen membership jump to 1.2 million, organizers say, a 20 percent increase.

The Women’s March on Washington “was an event where reproductive rights were really at the tip of the spear,” says Kaylie Hanson Long, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s national communications director. Women are also helping pack town hall meetings to defend the Affordable Care Act, which made health care available to close to 7.5 million women, and which included several woman-specific provisions. These include contraceptive coverage, a ban on higher premiums based on gender, and a ban on denying insurance to women with such “pre-existing conditions” as caesarean delivery or spousal abuse.

Women’s reproductive health groups and their allies have ginned up thousands of phone calls and petition signatures to Capitol Hill in opposition to Trump’s nomination of House Republican Tom Price of Georgia, a leading abortion opponent, for Health and Human Services secretary. The real battle royal, however, will start next week, when Trump is expected to nominate a Supreme Court justice to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Trump has said he wants a justice who will overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that upheld abortion as a constitutional right.

Unlike Trump’s cabinet picks, who only need a bare majority of senators to win confirmation, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will require the support of 60 Senators to win a floor vote (unless the Republicans decide to change the Senate rules). The stakes are high for women’s reproductive health groups, but they may be even higher for the GOP. Says Long, of NARAL: “People are more than ready to hold their senators and representatives accountable.”  

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