DeGette leading defense against House GOP assault on abortion rights

Colorado Representative and head of the Congressional Pro-Choice Caucus Diana DeGette is surprised to find herself doing heated battle on a number of fronts in the war over abortion rights this early in the year. This session of Congress was supposed to be about jobs and the economy, she has said, but the new Republican majority right out of the gate has gone full steam ahead with two bills aimed at expanding restrictions on federal abortion funding while, outside of Capitol Hill, conservative media activists have launched an attack on Planned Parenthood, using cut-and-paste undercover videos to spur Congress to slash all federal aid to the organization.

“I’m surprised, given that the number one issue right now is jobs, that the Republican leadership would make [this] extreme position one of their top three priorities of the session,” DeGette told Politico.

The six-term Congresswoman shouldn’t be surprised. She’s been battling hard against anti-abortion forces for the last year, long before Republicans controlled the House.

Broken tacit truce

In the days since the two new anti-abortion bills were introduced, analysts have been saying that they effectively end the truce that has existed for decades among lawmakers regarding public funding for abortion. Federal funding is now and has been for years restricted to pregnancies that endanger the mother’s life or that come as the product of rape and/or incest.

Rep. Chris Smith’s (R-N.J.) HR 3 “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” would eliminate tax breaks on insurance policies that cover abortions, permanently prohibit tax-funded abortions across all federal programs, like Medicaid, and end funding for abortions in Washington D.C.

Rep. Joe Pitts’s (R-Penn.) HR 358 “Protect Life Act” would strip federal funding for abortions that was included in last year’s national health care reform legislation and it would protect institutions opposed to providing abortions from being stripped of tax-payer support.

On Tuesday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee took up HR 3. On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health will consider HR 358.

Opposition campaign

DeGette and Pro-Choice Caucus Co-Chair Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) are leading a group opposing the bills that includes members from the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Judiciary Committee and representatives of pro-choice organizations such as the National Abortion Federation, NARAL Pro-choice America and Planned Parenthood. The group on Wednesday will host an event launching its campaign against the two bills.

A release from the Pro-Choice Caucus Tuesday said the bills were not just about tax-payer funding, which can sound limited and bureaucratic. The bills would “actually cut off millions of women from the private health care they have access to today, even preventing them from using their own money for medically necessary procedures.” The release added that the bills would limit women’s access to care “even if their life is in danger” and that the bills put government in the way of “women’s rights to determine their own health care with their families and doctors.”

Smith’s bill originally aimed to recast the definition of “rape” in order to lower the number of pregnancies eligible for funding. Smith’s bill proposed that only “forcible” rape pregnancies be eligible. “Forcible” rape is not only not a legal term but also would vaguely seem to rule out statutory rape, date rape and rapes of drugged victims and so on. The term was clearly crafted by a man who has never been raped and who failed to genuinely consult rape victims in creating the terminology, and it offended widely, forcing sponsors to strip the language from the bill.

Freshman Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who signed on as an original co-sponsor of the bill, said he didn’t support the redefinition of rape.

The fact that Smith and supporters like Gardner so quickly relented on or distanced themselves from that part of the bill suggested to some observers that it was meant all along as a bargaining chip.

Another jolt

Indeed, some pro-choice and women’s rights writers and activists are saying that pushing back against these bills is not enough. They say that pro-choice supporters are being outmaneuvered and that the debate alone moves the dial further against abortion. Merely opposing these bills, they argue, is the kind of reactive strategy that has seen women losing reproductive health rights incrementally year after year, an impression heightened last year when Michigan Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak spearheaded the move to limit access to abortion under the new national health care plan, winning over Democratic lawmakers in large numbers, including 64 Democrats in the House.

“Sometimes it takes a jolt to make people realize how serious the threat is to their rights. …And this was certainly a jolt,” DeGette said at the time. She then organized a group of about 40 Democratic lawmakers to say they would vote against President Obama’s health care reform if the Stupak language wasn’t removed.

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