The ‘Protect Life Act’ and Republican conservatism

As submitted to the Daily Maverick.

While President Obama could be accused of trying to curry favour with moral conservatives in rejecting the FDA’s recommendations on the “morning-after pill”, liberals can find some comfort in the fact that he’s at least pro-contraception, and isn’t planning to criminalise abortions just yet.

This puts him at odds with nearly every (plausible) Republican candidate with the exception of Mitt Romney who, while having changed his mind and become pro-life in 2004, is at least not a signatory to the regressive “Personhood Pledge” that has to date been signed by Santorum, Gingrich, Perry and Paul.

Ron Paul’s case is complicated by the addendum to his signing of the pledge, in which he disagrees with the Pledge’s assertion that the 14th amendment (which protects individual liberties from state encroachment) has a role to play in defending the interests of the unborn. While the addendum has led to some questioning of the sincerity of his commitment to the Pledge, he is nevertheless clear that “life begins at conception”, and that “it is the duty of the government to protect life”.

Of those who have not signed the Pledge (Huntsman and Romney), both want to repeal Roe vs. Wade, and Huntsman supports the introduction of a right to life amendment to the Constitution. While Romney thinks that current legislation has “cheapened the value of human life”, his stated intentions are to put abortion legislation in the hands of the state, rather than the Federal government.

Broadly speaking, then – because the details are, well, very detailed – all the candidates are pro-life to varying degrees of commitment. And while Romney and Paul can be credited with at least attempting to introduce a level of sophistication to their positions instead of simply appealing to the emotive fervour of a conservative base, the rest of the contenders speak of pre-born humans in terms that assume that the debate has an obvious conclusion, where a woman’s rights over her own body, and what to do with it, are significantly weakened.

As in most emotive issues, language is important here. A bias is immediately introduced in using terms like “pro-life”, given that it suggests an anti-life stance on the part of those that support abortion. Speaking of “unborn” or “pre-born” children introduces a similar bias, in that it encourages us to think of blastocysts, zygotes, embryos and foetuses as if they already had desires and aspirations capable of being dashed by those callous “anti-life” Democrats.

It is in the Personhood Pledge that these biases come to the fore in all their glory, where “every human being at every stage of development must be recognized as a person possessing the right to life”. While the Pledge’s opposition to assisted suicide and euthanasia increase the intended threats to individual liberty, it’s the language on abortion that is of most concern here.

Because it’s not only this pledge, but also a legislative move that should be seen as a concern. It should be concerning to Americans – most directly American women – but also to the rest of us, in that these sorts of developments can easily serve as example and inspiration to those who want to undermine South African liberties in this regard. It’s not only the ACDP that might want to do so – President Zuma’s visit to the Rhema Church during campaigning in 2009 included a reassurance that he’d be willing to entertain changes to legislation permitting both abortion and same-sex marriages.

The (American) legislation at issue is H.R.358, the Protect Life Act, which passed the House of Representatives in October 2011. The bill is considered unlikely to pass in the Senate, and President Obama intends to veto it even if it does. But in the hypothetical absence of the current Democratic Senate and President, the bill gives a clear insight into the how dedicated the current crop of Republicans in the House are to defend the unborn human, no matter how nebulous its form.

The first version of the bill submitted to the House by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA) called for a modification of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to only allow for health plans to cover abortions in cases of “forcible rape or, if a minor, an act of incest”. Women who fall pregnant as a result of gentle rape – or adult victims of incest – must presumably have had it coming.

That language was removed in the bill that passed the House (you can see each version here), which now allows for coverage in the event of “an act of rape or incest”. But this concession to the reality of women sometimes needing an abortion through no fault of their own does not address some of the worst aspects of the bill.

The Protect Life Act, if signed into law, would prevent women from buying even a private insurance plan through a state health care exchange (these are not insurers themselves, but entities that attempt to promote insurance transparency and accountability) if that plan covers abortions – even though most private insurance plans currently cover abortion.

It would require any insurer that operates under an exchange and covers abortion to also offer otherwise identical plans that exclude abortion coverage. The administrative costs of managing two near-identical schemes – where one would do, save this conservative agenda – might well result in many insurers thinking it’s simply not worth the trouble to offer a plan that covers abortion.

Of course, consumers can join a plan that isn’t offered through an exchange. But because of the extra visibility of plans offered under an exchange, and the consumer protections ensured by these exchanges, it seems likely that the only women who would do so are those who are well-informed and financially advantaged – raising the possibility of this bill introducing a bias against the poor, who need more protection than most.

Perhaps worst of all, the bill opens up an avenue for softening current requirements under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA), signed into law by Reagan to protect poor and uninsured patients who need emergency care. The Protect Life Act would allow hospitals that are morally opposed to performing abortions to withhold treatment in cases where a woman requires an emergency abortion in order to save her life.

As Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) says of her own experience in this regard: “I was pregnant, I was miscarrying, I was bleeding. If I had to go from one hospital to the next trying to find one emergency room that would take me in, who knows if I would even be here today. What my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are trying to do is misogynist”.

Nobody should be required to die for the sake of someone else’s religious beliefs. And while I can understand the desire for abortion to be treated as a non-trivial matter, we shouldn’t satisfy this desire at the cost of eroding an existing and thinking person’s rights over her own body. While life might begin at conception, individual rights do not. This is the sort of case in which we might hope that public representatives attempt to fight the tide of populist sentiment, rather than allowing the most reactionary forms of that sentiment to stand the chance of influencing policy.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.