WASHINGTON - Women holding placards that read, "No wire hangers ever!" packed a U.S. Senate ballroom Dec. 2 to lobby in opposition to the anti-abortion Stupak-Pitts Amendment to the House-passed health care bill. The amendment approved by the House 240 to 194 vote with all Republicans and 64 Democrats voting in the affirmative, is said to be the most sweeping attack on women's reproductive rights since the Supreme Court's 1972 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortions.
Rep. Donna Edwards, Md.-D, sparked cheers when she told the crowd, "The ground troops have arrived. Women care about our right to choose. We will not allow that right to be sacrificed in the name of health care reform."
Edwards added, "I want you to knock on every door. Do not take any senator's position for granted. We are not going to allow the federal government to reach into our handbags and take our money for health insurance that denies our rights."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, Calif. -D, said that Stupak-Pitts goes far beyond the Hyde Amendment that bars federal funding of abortions, denying a woman the right to use her own money to pay for an abortion. It "tears apart the compromise" in which women's equality advocates agreed not to insist that health care reform include repeal of the 1976 Hyde Amendment barring federal funding of abortions, she said.
The enemies of women's reproductive rights "hijacked" health care reform by attaching the anti-abortion rider, said Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat. She said it sent the message "you can have health reform if you give up a woman's right to an abortion." "That's a devil's bargain we will not make," she said.
She debunked arguments that Stupak-Pitts will affect only those who cannot afford to buy their own private insurance. "That's only 42 million of us," she said with sarcasm.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Conn.-D, said the original Affordable Health Care for America bill was "pro-life" because it would save the lives of the 45,000 people who die each year because they lack insurance. Stupak-Pitts, by contrast, will cost lives, forcing women back into lethal back alley abortions.
Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards welcomed the crowd that stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the vast ballroom. "The American people do not want health care reform that makes women worse off than they are now and today they came by planes, trains, and buses to deliver that message," she said.
Targeting Nebraska Democrat Sen. Ben Nelson, Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal urged a flood of protests at his office because he is threatening to filibuster health care reform unless it includes Stupak-Pitts.
The room was crowded with young women including Norma Nycoff, a student on Christmas break from Carlton College in Minnesota. "This rally was really empowering," she told the PW. "It was good to able to get together with activists across the country to defend women's choice. I would argue that young people are tending to be more liberal and willing to step up to defend women's rights."
Reflecting differences within the faith-based communities, the Rev. Carlton W. Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice pointed out the amendment will hit harder working-class women. "I came to Washington from Memphis 51 years ago. Women were dying from back alley abortions, women in the Black community, poor women. Never again will I not speak up for women's rights. You have not only a Constitutional right to an abortion, you have a God-given right."
The mostly female crowd was a rainbow coalition and from all parts of the country. Fifty women came by bus from Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Arkansas, said Loretta Ross, national coordinator of Atlanta-based Sister Song, the Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective. Ross recalled Dr. Martin Luther King's call to build a human rights movement in this country. "Right now, we are the women's wing of that movement."
For Latin American women, there is a double burden with both "immigration status," and the "stigma" in denying them health care coverage, said Sylvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. The movement, she said, must demand that Congress eliminate the discrimination that forces women to pay more for health insurance and subjects them to higher rejection rates for so-called "pre-existing conditions."
The coalition has collected over 400,000 signatures on an online "Stop Stupak" petition addressed to all 100 senators. After the ballroom rally, women went and knocked on senators' office doors.
Carolyn Flowers, a leader of the Young Women's Christian Association in North Carolina told the PW, they visited the office of Sen. Howard Coble who "said he thought Stupak-Pitts is 'right on.' So we told him our job is to make sure he doesn't get reelected."
"I'm excited. We sent an important message to our elected officials. We're in it to win it."
Photo: Tim Wheeler/PW