It sounds like a conspiracy plot straight out of a Margaret Atwood novel. Within a course of two weeks, mostly behind closed doors, politicians, bureaucrats and trustees strip reproductive health coverage from insurance plans covering thousands of female employees. It sounds like fantasy fiction but the assault on reproductive healthcare coverage in North Carolina is all too real.
In late January, the Apex Town Council voted unanimously to eliminate abortion coverage from their town employee's health plan. In short order, Wake County moved to deny all county employees abortion coverage without holding a public debate or vote.
Within two days of Wake County's decision, the trustees of the NC League of Municipalities voted to remove abortion care from their Cigna administered plan. This decision, made entirely behind closed doors, affects more than 9,000 town and city employees.
As soon as Wake County's decision became public, news reports revealed that state Representative Paul Stam from Apex was behind the alarming move. Newspaper and television accounts suggest he threatened a lawsuit against city and county officials if they did not drop abortion coverage. His threat stemmed from an almost thirty year old case, Stam v. North Carolina, in which citizen Paul Stam sued the state for helping low-income women pay for abortion care.
Legal minds, including those constitutional experts American Civil Liberties Union disagree. They have stated repeatedly that North Carolina law gives towns, municipalities and counties broad authority in offering their employees benefits. Surely, comprehensive healthcare qualifies as a benefit.
If there are clear disagreements about the merits of a potential lawsuit, then why are those in power jumping voluntarily to cut workers' benefits? The timing is interesting to say the least.
Healthcare reform on the national scene is stalled but that doesn't mean the divisive rancor has stopped. Those who oppose any government action to expand healthcare know full well that exploiting the most contentious elements of the debate feed their side and rally their troops.
In the final weeks of December, both bodies of Congress passed vastly different versions of healthcare reform. In the end, one element united the two-in both bills, abortion care was the only safe and legal medical procedure excluded from coverage.
The Democrats gave in to members of their own party who swore they would never vote for a healthcare bill that included abortion. Many of these Democrats were never going to vote for healthcare reform anyway.
Certainly, the Republicans who joined the Democrats in supporting the anti-abortion amendments to healthcare, known as Stupak and Nelson, respectively in the U.S. House and Senate, were never going to vote for healthcare reform.
Strategically, women's reproductive healthcare made an easy target. It kept the debate roiling for weeks. Of course, many fought valiantly to keep abortion care coverage as part of the comprehensive plan. But, in the end, leadership was willing to compromise on women's health. And it got them nowhere.
Abortion is a safe and legal medical procedure. One out of every three women will have an abortion in her lifetime. It is part of comprehensive healthcare, which is why more than 80% of health plans currently cover abortion.
It would be a bitter irony if the dream of large scale healthcare reform in this country led to a steady reduction in the number of healthcare plans covering abortion. This is exactly what's happening in North Carolina.
Tony Gurley, Chair of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, was quoted in the Lincoln Tribune saying he wasn't afraid "to use the abortion coverage issue as a political issue." It seems those who oppose a woman's right to choose never are.
There is no decision more profound than deciding when or whether to be a parent. There is nothing more fundamental to a woman's health and well-being than her ability make childbearing decisions.
Perhaps the next round of the national healthcare debate has already started in North Carolina. If so, let's make sure we understand that women's health should not be made worse because of it.
Paige Johnson is the Director of Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina