Why the Stupak Amendment is so bad

Perhaps the United States House of Representatives believes that all men are created equal—but it does not believe that all women are created equal, or that women are equal to men. These views it has made clear with the passage of the Stupak Amendment, which limits the right to choose for women who can afford to pay for an abortion up front, or for women who can afford a private insurer whose policy covers abortion.

As for the rest, well, that’s what coathangers are for.

HR-3962 describes itself as “[an act t]o provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans.” Abortion is legal in the United States to provide quality health care; in delivering the opinion of the Court on Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun explicitly stated that one reason for legalizing abortion was that, unregulated, it was deadly, but regulated it was much safer: “Mortality rates for women undergoing early abortions, where the procedure is legal, appear to be as low as or lower than the rates for normal childbirth. (…) The prevalence of high mortality rates at illegal “abortion mills” strengthens, rather than weakens, the State’s interest in regulating the conditions under which abortions are performed.” The passage of the Stupak Amendment, then, undermines the purpose of the healthcare reform bill, because it does not provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans. Not only does it bar the public health option from covering abortion, it also bars people who receive “affordability credits”—reduced premiums granted to people with lower income levels—from using those credits to purchase an insurance plan that covers abortion.

The consequences will be exactly those that Roe v. Wade tried to prevent: despite abortion limitations and bans, women will get them anyway, and the risks they incur will be much more severe.

In the United States, abortion is a legal medical procedure. For a bill whose purpose is to provide affordable healthcare to explicitly ban funding for abortions is absurd. Furthermore, the Stupak Amendment makes it in private health insurance companies’ best interest to take abortion coverage out of their policies: because of affordability credits, more people will be able to buy government-subsidized private health insurance, but only companies that don’t provide abortion coverage will see any of that new money. They can get more customers through the insurance exchange if the new customers get subsidies, but they can only get those customers if they don’t include abortion coverage.

I should add that this amendment is not about saving a fetal life, but about using pregnancy as punishment for sexual activity. If it were equating a fetus to a child, it would not permit abortion in cases of rape or incest; killing a child because it is the result of incest or rape would still be infanticide.

Many women simply cannot afford children or even childbirth right now—and given that many health insurance companies will not cover a c-section if a women has already had one, and that over 30% of births are c-sections, that’s understandable (the lowest price estimation I have seen for an uninsured c-section is $5,000, and most are upwards of $10,000 assuming everything goes smoothly). Consequently, the Stupak Amendment puts women in a damned-if-we-do, damned-if-we-don’t position.

Advocates for free-market capitalism ought to oppose the Stupak Amendment because it imposes a de facto artificial handicap on health insurance companies, without allowing customers to vote with their money. Advocates for socialism ought to object to this gross gap in healthcare provision between rich and poor women. Women ought to object because their rights are being stripped. Men ought to object because their lovers, daughters, sisters and friends could soon find themselves in the emergency room –or in a coffin– after an unsafe abortion. This amendment benefits no one and is a dangerous step backward for everyone.

This post originally appeared at Starboard Broadside.

Democratic candidates and Choice

There’s been a lot of controversy within the Democratic base over the Stupak Amendment, which we’ll be covering more later. Essentially, it’s an amendment by the so-called “pro-life Democrats” in the House and would place de facto restrictions on abortion accessibility if it passes both chambers of Congress. Without going into the amendment itself much, I wanted to look at a point this raises on the role of the Choice issue in the Democratic Party and how it relates to Democratic candidacies.

I obviously can’t speak for all base Democrats, but I think many of us made the critical mistake of underestimating the potential influence of the anti-choice/pro-life caucus within our party in Congress. For example, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA, elected 2006) has been a pretty good Senator so far, but everyone knew he ran as a “pro-life Democrat,” but most of us especially outside Pennsylvania probably thought very little on that point. Of course, some liberal pro-choice activists were rightly worried because Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the major 1992 Supreme Court revision of Roe v. Wade, refers to Bob Casey Sr. who was then the Governor of Pennsylvania and supported a fairly strict abortion restriction law — and it was reasonable to wonder if the father’s views were shared by the junior Senator from Pennsylvania.

As it turns out, yes that appears to be the case:

Now some Senate Democrats, including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are pushing to incorporate the same [Stupak] restrictions in their own bill. Senior Senate Democratic aides said the outcome was too close to call.

 
I sincerely hope that the Senate does not pass the Casey-Nelson version of Stupak into the Senate health care reform bill (and the signs suggest that it won’t succeed). But that’s not even what I’m looking at here.

The problem as I see it is that I and many others assumed that at the federal legislative level, abortion law was largely a settled matter for the most part. I know many activists who are dedicated in particular to this issue didn’t share that view, but I’m willing to admit they were right and I was wrong on this. I figured that if the Republicans had used nearly uninterrupted control of the whole Congress for twelve years and the White House and the House for six years, but had failed to outlaw abortion, then it was pretty much secure. There were restrictions such as the misleadingly named “partial-birth abortion ban,” but the Republicans were upfront about their hope of banning abortion and they failed. I assumed that pro-Choice Democrats, who do form a majority of the caucus, would be able to keep the “pro-Life” Democrats in check.

So for Casey and other candidates, I figured there was probably very little chance for them to put their views to a vote, and if it did come up I forgot that pro-life Republicans and Democrats would be able to vote in unison to form a majority as they did on the Stupak House amendment. It almost seemed like some Democratic candidates who took pro-life pledges might just have been pandering with no intention of casting damaging votes. And I think I was wrong.

That leads us to a question on how to view pro-life candidates in future. Obviously there are a lot of Democrats who have more conservative opinions on abortion, and that means there’s a role for pro-life candidates. On the other hand, and more importantly, I think a majority of the Democratic base supports the right to choose and women are certainly a majority of the Democratic Party’s membership nationally. The Stupak Amendment is a political problem for the party because it makes it look like the party is “throwing women under the bus,” as many have said in the past few days.

I think we may have reached a day of reckoning on this issue. The Democratic Party is going to face severe electoral difficulties if it doesn’t quickly resolve its position on abortion rights. In future election cycles, I think that activists, the ones who donate their time and money to elect Democrats, are going to be extremely wary of engaging with candidates who oppose the right to choose. We’ve now seen that they’re a real threat to the right to choose, not just a stated or theoretical threat. This is an intra-party policy contradiction that the party leaders have kicked down the road for years. That doesn’t look like an option anymore. Unfortunately, this has never been an issue that party leaders like to discuss openly, even though it needs to be discussed.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Iraqi Kurds protest Iranian bombardment

The Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) issued a press release on Friday protesting Iran’s bombardment of the border regions in their fight against Iranian Kurdish rebels in PJAK. According to the October 2nd press release, two sub-districts in the Kurdish Region of Iraq were subjected to heavy bombardment from Iran, most likely by shelling and Katyusha rockets, based on past strikes.

The KRG maintains some distance from groups like the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party, in Turkey) and PJAK because they are concerned about these such military actions, which they consider a violation of sovereignty. But the regional government also hasn’t taken particularly strong action against the rebels using their territory as a base of operations.

However, the statement doesn’t quite read as an accurate representation of the situation:

The Islamic Republic of Iran has severely bombarded the border areas of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq without any justification in clear violation of the sovereignty of Iraq and of the territory of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

 
If an armed terrorist organizations is attempting to bring down your government, you probably do feel like you have justification, whether or not it’s a violation of sovereignty.

The KRG still does have a legitimate complaint, and they’re in an awkward position of not wanting to antagonize either the neighboring countries or the other ethnic Kurdish groups, with whom they feel some solidarity, by rooting them out. But it’s probably unlikely that their request will be met:

Continued bombardment of such border areas is not in the interest of good neighbourly relations. Therefore, we urge the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately cease the unjustified bombardment of the border area and respect the sovereignty of Iraq, international law, and the peaceful will of the people of the Kurdistan Region.

 
This post was originally published on Starboard Broadside.

Giving death penalty the chop

This is now a week old, but the New York Times ran an editorial last Sunday arguing for the elimination of the death penalty on budget grounds (in addition to reasons of morality), which is something I discussed last May in an update to a post on California’s budget crisis. It’s one of the many contradictions in modern American conservatism: a professed fiscal conservatism and a tough-on-crime stance that requires the perpetuation of expensive money sucks, such as the war on drugs and the death penalty. Most people don’t realize just how expensive the death penalty really is, compared with life without parole.

Here’s what I wrote in the post in May:

The ACLU of Northern California just emailed me to recommend I link you all to their proposal to save the state $1 billion in 5 years. Their proposal rests on the premise that the death penalty is significantly more expensive than life imprisonment, as several studies have shown. The governor has proposed selling state lands to cover the fiscal crisis, including the San Quintin State Prison (death row), and thus the ACLU’s proposal makes sense. If you go to the preceding link from The Economist on the costs of the death penalty, they actually suggest that states are more likely to consider ending or suspending the death penalty as a cost-saving measure during the recession.

Honestly, I think the ACLU is completely right. I’d rather keep social safety nets for abused women (on the governor’s list of cuts in the main link in the post), than continue executing people, if we’re choosing between the two.

 
However, I didn’t enumerate the costs, except in the comments briefly… but the New York Times did, based on “evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center,” which opposes the death penalty:

States waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.

There is also a 15-to-20-year appeals process, but simply getting rid of it would be undemocratic and would increase the number of innocent people put to death. Besides, the majority of costs are in the pretrial and trial.

 
To really put it in perspective, they looked at a few states that continue to use the death penalty and they determined the average cost per executed person.

According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole. North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution. This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.

 
That’s a lot of money that could be used more productively or cut to ease state deficits during the present fiscal crisis. I don’t know if the $1 billion saved in 5 years claim by the ACLU of Northern California, is too optimistic, but just eliminating the $114 mil/year saves $570 million in five years, and that’s still a significant figure, and their sources calculate it’s $125 million not a $114 million. Furthermore, there are future cost increases projected for states such as California that will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars soon on new facilities to expand for the lengthening death row.

And of course, there are always the moral reasons, including the execution of innocent people. Let’s join the civilized world and save a bunch of money at the same time. Give death penalty the chop.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Giving up on job-hunting

This is one of those issues that I’ve been hammering away on since March: that the US government doesn’t count folks as officially unemployed if they’ve given up looking for work. The New York Times had a story on this yesterday, featuring the stories of several such people. One quotation from a master carpenter living in Florida stuck out at me as a good analogy for the situation…

“When you were in high school and kept asking the head cheerleader out for a date and she kept saying no, at some point you stopped asking her. It becomes a ‘why bother?’ scenario.”

 
The government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, as I’ve now said several times on this blog, publishes the U3 unemployment number as the official national unemployment statistic, which is what the media quotes every month. But the U3 ignores the folks in that article above who’ve given up looking because there just aren’t any jobs to be found. The U6 figure from the BLS is a broader measure that does take that into account, as well as including people who are underemployed (i.e. they can’t find as much work as they need because of jobs/hours scarcity). To quote myself from the end of July:

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

 
I once again commend the Times for looking into this, but the government is fundamentally misrepresenting the national economic situation to make things look better than they are, and that’s hamstringing the ability to implement good policy to fix things. The American media, as a whole, remains complicit in this fudge. I recognize that it would confuse everyone to have the national unemployment figure suddenly spike by changing it back to the pre-1994 way of measuring things (essentially what the U6 now measures), but millions of Americans are affected by this directly and indirectly; so it helps none of us to keep pretending things are much rosier than they are.

In August, the official U3 unemployment rate was 9.7%, while the U6 rate was 16.8%.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Did Texas Execute an Innocent Man?

One of the main arguments in support of the death penalty is that with all of the litigation and the many years of waiting on death row, it would be impossible to execute an innocent person. Given that a number of prisoners on death row have been exonerated by DNA evidence, there may indeed have been some innocent people killed (since DNA evidence is not present in every crime, despite what we see on CSI). Until now, however, there has never been one case that we can say with a good amount of certainty that the man was probably innocent. From the New Yorker’s David Grann comes the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed for starting a fire that killed his three children. Though the evidence seemed airtight at the time of the trial, there are some serious holes. The arson experts who studied the house had no real scientific training. There was never any motive for the murders. The prosecution had convinced the jury that a Led Zepplin poster and a skull tattoo were evidence of cult-like actions. Nevertheless, Willingham was executed. In recent years, Texas has been reviewing the evidence and may state next year that they believe he was innocent. If that happens, it will be a major landmark in our national debate over the death penalty.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

New York Times finally gets it

While studying an unemployment graphic by The New York Times back in March, I observed that they (like the rest of the traditional media) were ignoring the fact that the quoted national unemployment statistic (U3) is too limited in its definition. For example, it excludes all the people who’ve simply given up looking for work because there just aren’t any jobs in the area. This makes employment look far better than it really is, and it helps boost the stupid claims that western Europe’s national unemployment rates are far higher than ours. I showed that using the lesser-known U6 Bureau of Labor Statistics measurement of unemployment, which I explain fully in that post, US and Western Europe have very comparable unemployment most of the time.

This month, finally, the NY Times posted a state-by-state interactive graphic that confirms what many bloggers (including me) have been saying for quite some time: unemployment is much worse than many people realize. The new graphic shows the U6 rate in each state, rather than the usual and more limited U3, and for several states the unemployment is actually over 20%. Here’s a non-interactive picture of the map (click for full version):

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

While I laud the Times for their graphic earlier this month, they and others need to begin incorporating the broader definition into their reporting both nationwide and state-by-state. This shouldn’t be swept under the rug had a technicality. The government won’t change the definition back, I’m sure, because it’s like rose-colored glasses for the state of the economy. But the U6 figure is out there every month, and it takes about 5 seconds more to locate on the BLS website. The media just doesn’t want to waste time explaining the distinction to people.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.