Credit: Courtesy of–The recent defeat of Massachusetts’ Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley in the race for the seat held by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy may have a silver lining, according to one women’s rights advocate.

It could prevent the passage of health care reform legislation that contains provisions harmful to women. As it is now, the architects of the health care reform legislation are going back to the drawing board, which could result in changes that impact women’s reproductive rights. Many believe the current bills are simply unacceptable.

"The Senate bill and House bill are not good for women," Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, or NOW, told Women’s eNews. "They are not worth saving. We are better off with the status quo."

Women are doubly disadvantaged in today’s health care market, according to a statement on the Web site of U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Chicago and co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues and chairwoman of the Democratic Women’s Working Group. Women generally earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to men and pay 48 percent more for health care premiums than men, her statement said.

O’Neill, elected in June to succeed the term-limited Kim Gandy, said the proposed Senate bill doesn’t do away with this injustice. The Senate bill would continue to allow gender rating at companies with more than 100 employees, she said. Gender rating is the insurance company practice that charges women more than men for the same coverage.

O’Neill also opposes measures in the House and Senate bills that would restrict access to abortion.

Dems’ Failures to Fulfill Promises

While some analysts see Republican Scott Brown’s win as a harbinger of future setbacks for Democrats and pro-choice women, others say voters in Massachusetts showed their disappointment over the Democratic party’s failure to live up to its promises.

A telephone poll conducted by Research 2000 after the Jan. 19 special election for the Senate seat indicated that Obama supporters who either flipped to the other candidate or stayed home want more change, not less, Mary Rickles, spokeswoman for Burlington, Vt.-based Democracy for America, wrote in an e-mail.

Swing voters are against the Senate health care bill because it "doesn’t go far enough," Rickles told Women’s eNews. More than 80 percent of them want the choice of a public option, she said.

The Massachusetts poll was conducted for three organizations–the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and

Ross K. Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J, said Brown owes his win to the single issue of health care and has no guarantee, in one of the most Democratic states in the country, that he could win if he runs again in 2012.

Brown won a special election to complete Kennedy’s term that ends in 2012. He would have to run for reelection to a new six-year term.

"If he veers too much to the right, they can kick him out as fast as they kicked him in," Baker said.

Marie C. Wilson, founder and president of The White House Project, a nonprofit organization that trains women of all political stripes to run for office, said Coakley’s flub about the Red Sox during a radio broadcast may have also contributed to her downfall. Coakley gaffed when she indicated that former Red Sox hero Curt Schilling was a Yankees fan.

"Sports, as a manifestation of the citizenry’s pride, especially when that citizenry is suffering through relentlessly bad economic news and catastrophes overseas, cannot be discounted by would-be candidates as irrelevant," Wilson wrote in a Jan. 20 blog on the Huffington Post. "The bottom line is that popular culture matters in politics."

Strategies for Bill Survival

The best strategy for getting some health reform measures passed now would be "to pick through the carcass of the Senate bill," Baker said.

But that job won’t be easy, Baker said. "It would require a very delicate job of statutory reconciliation," he said.

However, Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins has said in published reports that many provisions in the bill have bipartisan support.

Collins and Maine’s other Republican senator, Olympia Snowe, are viewed as potential swing votes on health care legislation.

O’Neill said Democrats should pursue the "consensus pieces" of health care reform, such as prohibiting insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, and leave contentious issues such as abortion out of the legislation.

"This is not about Martha Coakley, who is wonderful," O’Neill said. "It’s a referendum on closed-door negotiations, the bank bailout, the huge infusion of money for health insurance companies and no clear option for single payer."

Coakley had the support of Washington, D.C.-based NOW, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s List, Arlington, Va.-based the Feminist Majority and others for her support for reproductive rights. Brown had the endorsement of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, who believe he would vote for a pro-life Supreme Court judge.

U.S. Rep. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, said in a written statement that Brown’s win signals "2010 is going to be a great year for the conservative movement and a difficult one for those politicians who chose to support President Obama and his policies."

Fallin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, "has a 100 percent pro-life rating and is very strongly pro-life," said her campaign spokesperson Alex Weintz.

Bigger Than One Election

While Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards expressed disappointment over Coakley’s loss in a written statement, she added that "the fight for affordable, quality health care coverage for all, including women’s reproductive health, is bigger than any one election."

Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, compared Coakley’s loss to Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s in New Jersey. It indicates voter disillusionment with the political scene and should not dissuade pro-choice women’s organizations from working for the election of more women to public office, she said.

"Democratic pro-choice women realize that politics are highly competitive," Walsh told Women’s eNews. "The pro-choice movement moves on. There are many more races coming and lots of women are running."

But Walsh added that the Coakley race illustrates how female candidates are held to different standards than men.

"There was a lot of focus on her (Coakley’s) sternness and her layered hair," Walsh said. "Her male opponent posed nude for Cosmo, but that was seen as funny and was accepted. He (Brown) was elected to the U.S. Senate. It would have been very different if a woman had posed nude. The levels of acceptance and scrutiny are different."

Susan Elan covered politics at daily newspapers in the New York metropolitan area for more than a decade. She has also worked as a reporter for an English-language radio station in Paris.

For more information:

EMILY’s List:

Feminist Majority Foundation:

NARAL Pro-Choice America:

National Organization for Women: