WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Pro-choice advocates are anxiously hoping the Senate will keep any further restrictions on abortion coverage out of its version of health care reform.

Already, the Senate’s version codifies the longstanding Hyde amendment, an annual rider to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services budget. The Hyde amendment blocks federal funds from covering abortion, which amounts to a coverage ban for recipients of Medicaid, the federal insurance program for low-income Americans.

But unlike its House counterpart, the Senate bill, at least so far, allows private insurance companies and a government-run plan to cover abortion if women pay for the service through higher premiums.

That’s because the Senate has refrained from adopting something similar to the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which the House adopted in its version.

Stupak-Pitts extends insurance restrictions beyond Medicaid by applying the abortion-coverage ban to any of the reformed insurance programs that tap federal money. That would take the coverage ban into the government’s proposed health exchange system, where it may encourage private insurers, who now cover abortion, to stop so they can meet a standard of coverage for the majority of consumers.

Writing on the Huffington Post on Monday, New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand warned of the dangers of a Stupak look-a-like in the Senate and pressed readers to lobby their senators against it.

The same day, Dec. 7, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., introduced an amendment that mirrors the Stupak language. But it proved too restrictive for the Senate, which is more pro-choice than the House.
Late Tuesday senators voted 54 to 45 to table Nelson’s amendment, effectively killing the amendment in its current form. But the debate may not be over. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told reporters that he’s "happy" to continue working with Nelson on a different approach to the issue.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., told protesters at a Dec. 2 anti-Stupak rally in Washington, D.C., that the Senate will probably be able to pass a bill without further restricting access to abortion.

Next Steps

Once the Senate passes its version, leaders from the House and Senate still have to meld the two versions of the bill into a so-called conference report, which goes back to the House for a vote.

What happens then? Will the same body of lawmakers that passed Stupak-Pitts accept a compromise bill stripped of that amendment?

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., vows the answer will be yes. "We will not vote for a conference report that restricts a woman’s right to choose beyond current law," the co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus told the crowd of protestors on Dec. 2.

Shortly after Stupak’s passage in the House, DeGette sent a letter signed by about 40 of her colleagues to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warning that the group would vote down a conference report that included Stupak-like restrictions. As the health care bill passed the House by a narrow margin in November, DeGette’s numbers are large enough to kill reform.

Alternatively, the House Pro-Choice Caucus might be able to convert enough Democrats who had originally voted for the Stupak amendment to pass a conference report without that amendment. Nadler told Women’s eNews that such conversions are possible.

Certainly, many pro-choice advocates are reluctant to sink all chance of reform.

"People are really ready to move on on this issue and not have a protracted debate about legal abortion in this country," Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richard recently told the Wall Street Journal, even though she called the Senate bill a compromise for pro-choice advocates.

The Coalition to Pass Health Care Reform and Stop Stupak!, which brought about 600 demonstrators to the Hill on Dec. 2 to participate in a rally and lobby their representatives, includes Planned Parenthood, MoveOn.org and the National Women’s Law Center.

Week of Activism

The group sponsored a week of activism across the country, which ended on Dec. 6 with advocates in California calling voters in the districts of anti-choice Democrats and urging them to vote against pro-Stupak candidates in the 2010 elections.

 The Nov. 30 to Dec. 6 demonstrations included mini-rallies in over 70 college campuses and a gathering of over 385,000 signatures on a petition that constituents forwarded to President Barack Obama, Reid and Pelosi.

While coalition members all focused on the same goal–discouraging the Senate from adopting something like Stupak–individual organizations pursued separate strategies.

Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, told Women’s eNews that her organization was bringing forward patients to speak with media and members of Congress to show how abortion is an integral part of women’s reproductive health.

In the House Pro-Choice Caucus, Nadler, a member of the group, said it was urging advocates to put political pressure on Democrats. Nadler’s colleague DeGette will continue to lobby Democrats in the Senate until the issue is put to rest, her spokesperson told Women’s eNews.

Planned Parenthood, meanwhile, asked members to phone, e-mail and visit their elected representatives.

Rutgers University Women’s Studies Professor Jyl Josephson called the turnout of about 600 people at the Dec. 2 rally "depressing." Josephson said she expected a few thousand people, but that it’s hard to mobilize people around an issue choked in policy minutiae.

One Woman Mobilized

One person who was mobilized by the Dec. 2 protest is Dana Weinstein.

In an exclusive interview with Women’s eNews, Weinstein said that until recently she’d felt uncomfortable even uttering the word "abortion."

But then it happened to her.

In the early part of this summer, Weinstein was still a happily pregnant 38-year-old watching TV at her home in Maryland. A reporter interviewed a physician in Boulder, Colo., named Warren Hern. After the murder of Dr. George Tiller earlier this year, Hern is one of the country’s last doctors who still provides late-term abortions.

"I remember lying in bed thinking, how could anybody terminate later term?" Weinstein said.

But then, a few weeks later in late June, at 28 weeks, a routine sonogram showed an abnormality in her fetus’s brain. A subsequent MRI showed that the fetus had two life-threatening conditions. If it survived birth, it would likely require immediate resuscitation and a life of feeding tubes.

After consulting more doctors, Weinstein and her husband wound up in Hern’s clinic in Colorado.

Now, five months later, Weinstein is still fighting with her insurance company, hoping to be reimbursed for some of $17,500 it cost for the late-term abortion.

"I was fortunate to be able to pull the money together," Weinstein said, adding that the experience has spurred her to speak out on behalf of other, less fortunate women.

Her first move: vocally opposing the Stupak-Pitts amendment. In recent days Weinstein has shared her story with members of the National Abortion Federation, the staff of Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Women’s eNews.

Julia Marsh is a Washington-based correspondent covering domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.

For more information:

The Coalition to Pass Health Care Reform and Stop Stupak!

The Stupak-Pitts amendment text

Senate bill without a Stupak-like amendment