Pro-Life Revisited: Abortion, Farm Bill & Political Paralysis

My friends and colleagues will tell you:  there are very few things that I won’t say, or talk about.  If we’re in a meeting on the Hill and someone has to ask the hard question, it’s more often than not me who does it.  If we are having a moment of “coalition crankiness,” I wade into the discussion.  It’s generally my view that you can iron out many differences and often make progress by talking things out.  I’ve never had that perspective about abortion.  It’s one of those issues where almost everyone has a strong view, and no amount of talking is likely to change it.  Additionally, the more that’s said, the more likely there is to be a strong divergence of views, whether those views are shared, or not.  So, it comes as something of a surprise, to me at least, that my third post is focused on abortion.  And with that, I wade in.

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Earlier this week, the U.S. House Judiciary Comm., which is comprised entirely of men, passed a bill that bans abortion twenty weeks after conception, except where the mother’s life is in danger.  A bill that limits women’s reproductive choice being issued by a committee with no one on it with firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be pregnant.  Hmmm.  And the bill had no exceptions for rape or incest.  Double hmmm.  Those modest additions were put forward as amendments on Wednesday and rejected.  Only because the bill’s sponsor made the astounding suggestion that not many pregnancies occur as a result of rape, was the House leadership forced to backpedal and include the rape/incest amendment two days later.

 Equally bad bills like this one, and this one and ones that are worse still are being introduced across the country.  (Note:  I include the linked articles because they are where I found info. re:  the bills, and not because they are decidedly partisan).  Now one approach from here would be to go partisan and rave about who keeps introducing all these bills.  But that’s not what I’m after.  It also wouldn’t get me far since there are plenty of democrats who favor abortion restrictions.

What I want to do is two things:  1) applaud and share the comments that Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, makes about the issue of abortion:  “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is;” and 2) start the conversation that Sister Joan is talking about by sharing this piece from the NYT mag. It offers some anecdotal insights into the lives of some women who’ve sought, but not been able to have an abortion.  It also offers some data about the different quality of life that women experience when they are able to get an abortion v. those who try and fail to get one because their pregnancies are too far along.   Most of the women in this ongoing study already have at least one child.  Most are unlikely to have finished college.  Eighty percent report not having enough money to meet basic needs.  These three facts are true of all the women in the study, whether they were able to secure an abortion or not.   Where the disjunction comes in is on economic issues.  As compared to their study counterparts who were able to secure an abortion, those who were not were three times as likely to be living below the poverty line 2 years later.  So one key, though not surprising takeaway is that  the women in the study were worse off financially.  Many of them turned to “public assistance for women with newborns.”  Thus far, that federal program –the Women, Infant and Children program, or WIC — has been able to meet the demand for services.  But, it and several other key assistance programs, including SNAP, formerly Food Stamps, and TANF  (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) have either seen cuts or underperformed relative to need and reaching target audience in this tough economy.  Sister Joan expresses the hope that legislators who are avowedly pro-life will also translate those beliefs into some support for, at minimum, these kinds of safety net programs that sustain families.   Let’s follow the dollars. 

     According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a number of budget strictures, including those imposed by the sequester, will mean nearly $500 million worth of cuts to the WIC program.  The Center’s report details a number of troubling things that happen as a result of these cuts:  staff reductions, WIC clinic closures or reduction in hours, all of which make it more difficult and discouraging for those seeking services.  With respect to SNAP, a key supplemental nutrition program, the Senate just passed its version of the farm bill last week, and made cuts to SNAP comparable to those faced by WIC –$496 million for WIC  v. $400 million for SNAP.  The full House has not voted on the farm bill yet, however, the House Agricultural Comm. has approved a bill which would cut SNAP by $2 billion a year.

     This brings us back to the point(s) that Sister Joan is making.  If one, as a legislator, is acting to do everything in his (in this case) power to reduce, if not eliminate access to abortion, then what responsibility should he assume for ensuring that the lives that came into being, due in some measure to his actions, are viable, not just for 9 months in utero, but for the years that follow?  It’s worth noting that the same House farm bill that proposes $2 billion worth of cuts to SNAP– which, beyond the context of the issues I raise,  is this country’s key anti-hunger program — is full of many subsidies for farmers:  for rice and peanut, and dairy farmers and for crop insurance.  The Senate tried to reduce these subsidies, but seemed to only be able to pare back  the amount of assistance farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000 receive with their crop insurance.  Numbers can sometimes cause the eyes to glaze, so let me say this differently: the Senate’s cuts to farmers making six figures will only affect about 20,000, while the House is proposing to cut $2 billion from a program that serves 1 in 7 Americans.  Two million of them could lose their benefits if the House proposal is not scaled back. These proposals could be described many ways.  Pro-life does not make the list. 

 In the end, Sister Joan is right, if not about her conclusions — though I agree, some may not — then certainly about the question(s) we need to be asking.   Ultimately, this piece also ends up being more about those morality questions than the Scarlet A.  As we celebrate Father’s Day today, we need to start asking those tough questions about leadership, and whether the people we’re electing are doing the job.  And, if they are not because they are spending more time protecting interests other than “the least of these,” all our “to do” lists just got longer by one.

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It’s a week after the first part of this post and there are a few updates worth passing along.

First, is this op ed  in which one woman shares her story of how/why she needed an abortion at 23 weeks.  It’s as eloquent and  painful a demonstration of why abortion needs to be left to those who need them, their loved ones, and physicians, and not the Congress as I ever hope to read.

The second is that quite unexpectedly yesterday, the farm bill was defeated in the House of Representatives.  There’s a lot of finger pointing happening just now.  Nothing new there.  We’ve heard it before.  Democrats are partisan.  Republicans are amateurs.  One side didn’t deliver their votes, the other blindsided them.  Read the rehashes here and here.  What simultaneously is and is not news is that the bill ultimately failed because there weren’t enough votes on the Democrat side of the aisle.  This is not a surprise, because the final amendment to the bill proposed to add work requirements to the SNAP program, and coming behind a raft of other amendments, including one that would have drug tested SNAP recipients (without any particular reason to believe that the recipients had drug problems), the D’s threw up their hands and walked away.  The surprise was that the R’s were counting on them to help pass a bill that people at both ends of the philosophical spectrum hated.  Conservative R’s wanted more cuts to the SNAP Program.  That’s a pretty harrowing notion when you understand that the bill already contained $20 billion worth of SNAP cuts ($2 billion annually for 10 years) , and progressives wanted less.  This level of dysfunction is what passes for the “new normal” in Washington, D.C.  Coming down the pike directly behind this most recent debacle is the Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill.   While the House has another chance to get it right, and to choose to work in a serious bi-partisan manner, I’ve been told that at the House Judiciary Comm. meeting earlier this week, many mandatory minimums and other problematic proposals were added to the House bill, such that it is probably doomed, already.  Einstein put it best:  “Crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly, and expecting different results.”  We should also be guided by that, and send some different people to Congress in the future:  people who are interesting in public service, and in legislating, not pontificating and obstructing.

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