It’s been a tumultuous year for the American people and, perhaps in particular, for those American women who are keen on keeping control of their reproductive rights.
The Republicans’ controversial health care plan included provisions which would have blocked Planned Parenthood from collecting Medicaid reimbursements, penalized small businesses who bought private insurance plans that covered abortion, and potentially denied millions of women access to free birth control. Thankfully the bill collapsed earlier this year, but this hasn’t stopped some Senate Republican leaders from gearing up to launch another bid to repeal Obamacare.
Last week, independent senator Bernie Sanders launched his new ‘Medicare for All’ health care bill, also known as the ‘single-payer’ program. If implemented, the legislation would eventually lead to a simplified system where citizens are enrolled automatically and coverage is the same for everyone. This coverage would include pretty much everything, from hospital services, to mental health care, to prescription drugs. And, importantly, it would provide "comprehensive reproductive care” for women, including abortions.
Right now in the US, the average cost of an abortion is $500, but in some cases it can be as a high as $2,000, meaning that many women can’t afford the procedure at all. According to one study, three quarters of abortion patients are from poor or low-income background and nearly half live beneath the federal poverty level. Research has even found that the majority of women who do have medical insurance still pay out of their own pocket for abortions. While some plans don’t cover it, there are women who don’t want to have the termination recorded on their medical history, while others who get their insurance through their partner will choose to pay themselves rather than have their partner know. This is why Sanders’ legislation is so important: it would mean that every woman would be able to pay for a safe and legal abortion if they elected for one.
It directly rails against the 1976 Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from being spent to pay for abortion services. For more than 40 years this amendment has been annually reenacted by Congress and even Obama’s Affordable Care Act left Hyde in place. Reproductive rights activists have long argued that Hyde discriminates against poor women and makes abortion access a privilege that not everyone can afford. During his 2016 election campaign, Sanders was criticized for not including a repeal of the Hyde Amendment in his single-player plan. A year on, his new bill explicitly states that it will: “RESTRICTIONS SHALL NOT APPLY. Any other provision of law in effect on the date of enactment of this Act restricting the use of Federal funds for any reproductive health service shall not apply.” Speaking last week at a press conference to introduce the bill, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal explicitly repeated this pledge: "[Women in America] have been denied health care too long because of restrictions like the Hyde Amendment. Consider the Hyde Amendment history if we pass Medicare for All. And all those other restrictions on reproductive rights.”
Of course, not everyone is happy with the single-player program. The prospect of taxpayer money being used to pay for abortions has unsurprisingly riled up pro-lifers and certain elements of the right wing media. President Donald Trump wasted no time in attacking it as a “curse on the U.S.”, while White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders labelled it “a horrible idea”.
Trump reassured his Twitter followers that he would veto the bill “because I love our country & its people” [sic], but other commentators (and critics) have been quick to point out that it’ll never get as far as the President’s desk in the first place. While the bill is certainly gaining momentum and has significant backing from prominent Democrats, Congress is currently controlled by Republicans, meaning there is no way it’s becoming law anytime soon. Elsewhere, questions have been raised about how the bill would initially be funded and who exactly would be paying for it thereafter. One study, carried out this summer, before Sanders announced Medicare for All, indicated that while 53% of Americans favor a single-payer health care system in theory, this support drops when they realize what it would entail. For instance, when researchers told people that implementing health care would involve many Americans paying more in taxes, the number opposing the proposal increased from 43% to 60%.
However, while it may suit some to dismiss Sanders bill as simply a pipe dream, its significance should not be underestimated. The fact that 16 influential Democratic and independent senators including several potential candidates for the 2020 presidential nomination are co-sponsoring the bill signals that universal health care, and within that abortion care, is a core right that the Democratic party is willing to defend.
“Health care must be recognized as a right, not a privilege,” says Sanders in the introductory statement about Medicare for All his website. “Every man, woman and child in our country should be able to access the health care they need regardless of their income.” It might be some time away, but the launch of this bill marks a concerted step forward, towards a day when every American woman receives the reproductive health care she needs and deserves.