Abortion Language in the Health Care Bill: Another Women's Smackdown and What to Do

When Sen. Ben Nelson's (D-Neb.) abortion language was added to the Senate health care bill, a Republican member of my organization sent me this email: "Don't blame us. It's your party and president that started this mess."

Is it me, or is Obama's health care bill increasingly like the movie Groundhog Day? Another day, another women's health smackdown.

Ladies, we are a bargaining chip - and apparently, not a very big one. Women's health is under assault. Mammograms, pap smears, the Stupak Amendment and the Nelson language are all part of the wake up call of our generation.

As 2009 draws to a close, women stand at a crossroad of possibility. In 2009, women made significant strides in combating overt sexism and, at long last, elected a woman candidate because of, not despite, her gender. Yet, if women don't wake up and restructure our activism, the basic privileges and liberties that we have all taken for granted for several decades could well be fleeting.

The good news - women have the power to effectuate change. After the 2008 misogyny-fest, we said "no more" to overt sexism. As a result, 2009 might well be dubbed The Year of the Apology. Chris Matthews apologized on behalf of Dick Armey for Armey's comment to Joan Walsh. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) apologized for calling Fed Adviser Linda Robertson a "K Street Whore." Letterman apologized (twice) for his "jokes" about Governor Palin's teenage daughter. Heck, even Chris Brown apologized for almost strangling Rihanna to death.

Women also flexed their muscles this year up in Massachusetts where Martha Coakley won a landslide victory in the state's primary election for Ted Kennedy's vacant senate seat. Yes, Coakley is poised to become that state's first female senator. Yes, Coakley would become our country's 18th woman senator (a record). But the most compelling takeaway is this: Martha won because of, not despite, her gender. Coakley's campaign was successfully able to harness the support of women and women's organizations from around the country.

If our country and women were ready in 2008, we could have used the Coakley template to elect our first woman president. And yes, in the last few months we've heard a fair amount of "I told you so's" from Hillary Clinton supporters. But as we embark on 2010, it's time to put that aside and move forward. In 2010, women need to unite and work to get more women in leadership roles.

Why the call to action? I'll sum it up in one word: Mammogram. The new mammogram guidelines came from a government agency in Obama's Democratic Administration. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson had actually rebuked a similar recommendation in 2002 under the W. Bush Administration. That the mammogram recommendations were even made public is emblematic of the weakened state of women's bargaining power.

Our saving grace would be our women leaders -- of both parties. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) co-sponsored an amendment to the Senate's health-care bill. Meanwhile, other women leaders, including Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (R-Calif.) and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), have also spoken out on behalf of women. If not for this bipartisan effort on the part of our women leaders, women in their 40s would have become the first target of health care rationing.

And the battle is only beginning. Rationing pap smears has also been mentioned.

Question: How is it possible that our country could considering cutting back preventative screenings for breast cancer and cervical cancer; yet not a word about taxpayer funding of Viagra? How can this be?

The Nelson language is just another notch. And whether or not you are pro-choice, here's again the takeaway: All aspects of women's health are under assault. Who knows what will be rationed or taken away next?

In 2010, we must elect more women into positions of power. And, we need to reformulate the old game plan of only focusing on Democratic women. It's a losing strategy. In 2009, we learned that we cannot count on the Democratic Party to stand up for women. We can, however, count on women politicians to stand up for women.

For here's the other aspect: We cannot control the political climate around us. Four of the 10 most vulnerable Senate seats in 2010 are held by Democratic women: Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). We need to cultivate and finance women from all parties. We need strong candidates for every political headwind and tailwind.

And, yes, we can do this. Our progress in 2009 shows that when women unite around an issue, we will prevail. We said "no more" to the misogynyfest of 2008 and we prevailed. We said "yes" to making history in Massachusetts and achieved that too. In 2010, we must roll up our sleeves - women of all ages - and work to get more women into positions of leadership. Simply put: Our health and well being depends on it.