Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Abortion and the Massachusetts Senate seat

Here in Massachusetts there is a field of four Democratic candidates vying in a nomination runoff (December 8) for a special election (January 19) to succeed the late Ted Kennedy; winning this nomination is virtually tantamount to winning the Senate seat. The current front-runner, and only woman in this race, is Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.

The four candidates were not that different in their positions on most issues -- at least not until today. Without being expressly pressed on the issue, Coakley volunteered that the abortion prohibitions in the House-passed healthcare reform bill were so intolerable that, if she were in the Senate, she would oppose the bill. Given that the bill will receive not more than 1 or 2 Republican votes, and that it needs 60 to avoid a (virtual) filibuster, this would kill it. The other candidates were quick to distance themselves from this position, creating an actual difference between them and Coakley. My guess is that she had gotten uneasy about her frontrunner position and felt that she needed to make some sort of a move to at least cement her support among women, who are probably her prime constituency.

I think she made both a strategic political mistake and an ethical one as well. Given the strong support for the President in Massachusetts, and the fact that the Commonwealth is only one of three states to have experimented with healthcare for all, I don't believe her willingness to undermine Obama's main legislative goal will get her the votes that she gambled for. Also, support for abortion rights in Massachusetts, where there are many Catholics, may not be as strong as she thinks.

On the ethical side, it seems questionable that it is correct to pass up the opportunity to get healthcare for millions of uninsured women -- and men -- outside of Massachusetts, simply because the bill does not cover abortions. It isn't that the bill criminalizes the procedure, it just makes coverage unavailable for anyone receiving a federal subsidy. The danger to poor and uninsured women posed by diseases -- e.g. cancer, hepatitis, AIDS, diabetes, heart disease and stroke -- is far greater than the financial threat of an uncovered abortion. This point has already been made by the other candidates and widely in the press.

Well, what about Dennis Kucinich, who actually voted against the flawed bill in the House? First of all, as I suggested in yesterday's blog, he was probably well-aware of the support it had, and might well have voted differently had his vote been the deciding one. Coakley explicitly said she would vote against such a measure in any case. Had, in fact, Kucinich's vote doomed the bill, the same criticism that applies to Coakley would apply to him.

So-called "liberals" have to realize that political gains are essentially made through the ballot box. What you can get is determined by what you can pass. If the liberals had the votes, there wouldn't be an anti-abortion clause in the House bill -- but there is. If the liberals had the votes, there would be a single-payer bill -- but there isn't. What we have now is just the possibility of some sort of healthcare bill -- and a very imperfect one at that -- actually becoming law. If this should happen, there are years and years to make improvements, just as there have been improvements in Social Security (indexing, for example) and Medicare (a better-than-nothing drug plan). If nothing gets passed, there is a good chance that Republicans will pick up enough seats in next year's elections to make any plan impossible. In fact, failure of healthcare reform, in and of itself, may make the electorate, with its 48 hour memory, more likely to vote against Democrats and for the other party -- the one really committed to big business, Wall Street, and large private insurance companies (see Traitor Joe Lieberman).

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