Thursday, June 4, 2009

Excellent Analysis of Abortion Rights Stakes

This is an article from Maggie Mahar, an author for Century Foundation HealthBeat's blog. Everyone ought to read it.

The murder of Dr. Tiller changes the terms of the debate for at least one person: President Barack Obama. Not long ago, the president expressed his hope that pro-life advocates would find a "common ground" with those who support choice. As we noted yesterday on HealthBeat, the killing underscores just how far apart the two sides are.

Of course, the vast majority of pro-life advocates do not support violence. But the response to the murder by advocates like Bill O'Reilly reminds us just how much hatred the debate has generated. Waving photos of bloody fetuses, denouncing doctors who dare to perform legal abortions, and pushing for laws that subject women to cruel and unusual punishment, those who oppose abortion have brought emotions to a fever pitch. 

In recent years, there have been no killings of abortion physicians. Why? Because pro-life advocates had intimidated the majority of the nation's doctors. As we noted in an earlier post on HealthBeat, very few medical schools now offer training in how to perform abortions, and. the shortage of providers is severe: Some 87% of counties in this country do not have an abortion provider.

This means that poor women often have to travel long distances to find what the law has promised them: a safe abortion. 

In 1995, pro-life Congressmen banned abortion coverage for federal employees covered by Federal Employees Health Benefits (FEHB) And under the Bush administration, state laws became more and more draconian. Thirteen states now require doctors to offer ultrasound exams to women seeking abortions, and in Oklahoma the law requires doctors to perform the ultrasound while making sure that the woman has a clear view of the screen during the exam. During the sonogram, doctors are directed to deliver a mandated script; providing details about a fetus's development and the suggestion that the fetus may feel pain during the procedure. (This is what I call cruel and unusual punishment.)

Pro-life advocates felt that, for all practical purposes, they were winning the debate. It was becoming more and more difficult for a woman to have an abortion. Her opponents had the country locked down. 

With President Obama's election, suddenly, pro-lifers were no longer so confident. While campaigning in 2007, Obama told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund; "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." Since then he has backed away from endorsing the Act, saying " I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on." At Notre Dame, he emphasized the need for "both sides of the abortion issue establish common ground" and "make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women."

Then came the assassination of Dr. Tiller. It was as if the killer had aimed his bullet directly at the president's policy. Recently, pro-life advocates have expressed concern that, under the president's health reform plan, "universal coverage" will include legal abortions. The killer was sending a message to the president: forget about common ground. 

President Obama was visibly outraged by the murder. It is bound to make him reflect on whether it is possible to "tamp down the anger" or whether this administration must make it clear to all Americans that, under the law, abortion is legal. And that no advocacy group has the right to try to remake the law through a process of intimidation and terrorism. 

A week ago, I was skeptical as to whether national health reform would cover abortions. Now, I think it will. This killer threw down a gauntlet, and those who support choice will respond. They won't buy guns. They will contact their elected representatives.

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