9 Nov 2009

Pregnancy and politics in the US

Sarah Smith blogs on the role the abortion arguement plays in modern US politics and life.

I was standing outside the front gate of Fort Hood in Texas when we heard that one of the victims shot dead on Thursday had been pregnant.

“Do we add that to the total dead?” asked an American producer.

I told her firmly that in the UK we certainly did not.The unborn twins killed by the Real IRA in the Omagh bomb have never been counted in the total death toll. And we would not be reporting that there were now 14 dead in Texas.

“Absolutely we count children in womb” asserted another American journalist as he walked past. Adamant that was another American life lost and that 14 souls had therefore been murdered.

“Does it matter how far along the mother was?” asked the first producer.

I pointed out that it’s a very fraught philosophical argument, the question of precisely when life begins, and then quickly exited before that discussion began. I have learnt to my cost not to discuss that question in a country where the debate over abortion rages daily with a burning ferocity.

It’s amazing to someone like me, who comes from country where the right to choose or the right to life so rarely enters the political discourse, to watch how often and how significantly abortion affects so many decisions in America.

Even as the Democrats are celebrating the passage of their health care reforms through the House of Representatives late on Saturday night their victory is marred by compromises they had to make over abortion to get the measure through.

They had to agree that no federal funds would ever be used to pay for abortions – and that means that millions of women who would, under the legislation, be able to buy health care coverage with the help of government subsides will not be entitled to have an abortion paid for by their health insurance. Unlike women who get their health insurance from the employers where almost every policy covers the procedure.

Pro-choice groups are furious. Saying it’s the greatest blow to abortion rights in the US for many years as it will make it harder for millions of the poorest to get access to terminations. It may also make it harder for the bill to pass through the Senate where some will try to strip this amendment out of the legislation.

When he was still a candidate for the Democratic nomination and was trying to steal the votes of left wing women away from Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama proudly boasted about his pro-choice voting record and beliefs.

But there was no a mention of abortion on Sunday when he appeared in the White House Rose Garden for a moment of self congratulation about the bill’s passage.

He had to discuss abortion earlier in the week though, when he was taking calls in the White House from the sole Republican Representative who voted for the bill – Anh “Joseph” Cao.

He phoned the president to tell him he might be able to support the bill but only if abortion limits were included and Cao is now proudly boasting that he forced the Democrats to accept this measure.

We know that Obama was very keen to get at least one Republican vote so he could claim bi-partisan support for his reforms. And we know that as late as Saturday afternoon he was working hard for every single vote. We know he called Cao himself that afternoon for another conversation that must have included discussion of the abortion amendment.

What we don’t know is how much damage the president has done himself among his loyal base of female supporters who will feel they have just watched him give away an important concession reproductive rights in exchange for a fig leaf of bi-partisanship.

Abortion is always very poisonous subject whenever it’s injected into American politics – and it’s now right at the heart of health care reform bill that was already one of the most divisive issues in the country