Past Event

Abortion and health care: Can we have one without the other?

On March 23, 2010, the United States witnessed a breakthrough in health care reform when President Obama signed a health care package into existence. Following that, both the House and the Senate worked out a complicated set of negotiations and maneuverings with a final House vote of 220 to 207 and the Senate vote of 56 to 43. Republicans were unanimously opposed in both chambers.

Health care reform has been a legislative battle for decades. At the center of every debate have been contentious matters like the addition of a public option and whether or not undocumented immigrants should be able to access health care. However, few topics have been as contentious as that of abortion.  Even now, after the passage of the health care reform bill, both anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights constituencies remain convinced that they have suffered damaging losses.

Planned Parenthood released a statement about the legislation calling it a “huge victory for women’s health,” because of specific clauses that are helpful to women. For instance, it “protects women against gender discrimination by private insurers” and “ends the practice of dropping coverage because of pre-existing conditions, like pregnancy.” However, the statement also cautioned that, “While we celebrate the passage of health care reform, we’re going to need your help to fix the damage caused by the Nelson amendment. If left intact, the Nelson amendment would be the most severe restriction on private health insurance coverage for abortion in 35 years.”

The Nelson amendment stipulates that “individuals who choose a health plan that includes abortion care are required to write two separate premium checks, one for abortion care and one for everything else. This has the same effect as an abortion rider, a policy that requires individuals to purchase a single-service abortion policy separate from their health insurance package.” According to Planned Parenthood, this “creates an unworkable system for health plans, and it is likely health plans will forgo covering abortion care rather than have to abide by this series of cumbersome administrative requirements.”

Anti-abortion rights activists have also been disappointed in the legislation, and they have made their displeasure known. The National Right to Life Committee issued a statement saying that the legislation “changes nothing. It does not correct any of the serious pro-abortion provisions in the bill.” Representative Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat from Michigan whose support eventually helped pass the legislation recently announced his retirement. Stupak earned the ire of both sides in the abortion debate, with anti-abortionists insisting that the executive order was insufficient. Right to Life of Michigan has announced that it would “take back” its 1990 endorsement of Stupak.

While all this indicates the extremely divisive nature of the abortion issue in the United States, it also raises questions about the relationship of health care to women’s issues. Over the last few decades, several abortion-rights groups have preferred to use the language of “reproductive rights” rather than “the right to abortion.” This shift was meant to signal that abortion rights are in fact linked to larger concerns around women’s health, such as the right to access to contraceptives, pre and post-natal care and the right to sex education. The terminology may have had some effect. In an article for The American Prospect, Dana Goldman cited a poll by the Mellman Group that found that “71 percent of Americans support coverage for reproductive health, including contraception, under a public plan. Sixty-six percent support coverage for abortion in a public plan.”

At the same time, most anti-abortion groups now frame themselves as people advocating for the “right to life.”  They argue that they are advocating for the rights of the unborn. In Florida, lawmakers are now considering a measure that would make it much harder for pregnant teens to get an abortion without parental consent. Advocates of this legislation say that this measure is necessary because women need the guidance of a parent when making decisions about the life and health of a fetus.  

Is abortion a matter of women’s health or a moral issue concerning the rights of the fetus? Where do you stand on the issue of abortion as it relates to newly passed healthcare legislation? How should the issue of abortion be debated by the public? Why do you think this issue is so divisive?

Suggested Resources

This special Café Society topic was written by guest writer Yasmin Nair, who blogs at

If you need a sign interpreter or require other arrangements to fully participate, please call 312.422.5580. For parking locations near the facility, please visit