‘Mad Men,’ Maddening Times
November 19, 2009, 3:00am

By Judith Warner — The New York Times.

“Has Congress become like an episode of ‘Mad Men’?” California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez asked this week, after the House of Representatives approved a version of health care reform that contained what some pro-choice advocates are calling the toughest restrictions on women’s access to abortion since the Roe v. Wade decision.

Her evocation of the bad old days was well-timed. For this past weekend saw not only the political sleight of hand that stripped millions of women’s abortion coverage from the House’s health care reform bill; it also brought the season finale of AMC’s highly popular pre-Roe-era series, which concluded with the unhappy housewife heroine Betty Draper leaving her philandering husband, Don, for the promise of marriage to another man she barely knows.

As her lawyer, and Don, have made clear, without a man Betty is nothing. She has the right to nothing — not to marital money, not even to custody of her children.

It was, in large part, to free women from this utter dependency upon — and definition by — men that the women’s movement came into being. Self-determination, at base, is what abortion rights in particular have always been about.

Americans — as the Shriver Report brought home, most recently — have embraced many aspects of women’s “liberation.” They approve of the movement of women into the work force. They have adjusted to the changes in power dynamics that this move has brought into modern marriages. But true self-determination, on the most intimate level, has remained problematic, particularly in the past decade or two, as memories of the prefeminist ’60s have dimmed. At the same time, some of the more insidious elements of the long-brewing antifeminist backlash have become an accepted part of our cultural landscape.

We’ve seen this for years in the way we talk about motherhood: celebrating selflessness, demanding an almost inhuman degree of child-centeredness, positioning the interests of mothers in opposition to those of their children, as our political and personal debates so often do. Nowhere has this come to be more true than in the abortion debate, in which anti-choice activists have pitted the lives of unborn children against the selfishness of their mothers.

And never was the false conflict between women’s self-determination and the greater good more cruelly staged than in the dilemma that confronted the pro-choice Speaker of the House last Saturday night as she faced the decision of whether to let health reform — desperately needed by children and families — move forward with a such a considerable blow to women’s rights embedded within it, or whether to allow it to die on the vine.

Nancy Pelosi shouldn’t have had to face that “choice.” It is a highly depressing sign of our times that she did.

The Stupak-Pitts Amendment, which passed as the House eked out a vote in favor of health reform, prohibits anyone receiving a federal subsidy from purchasing insurance that includes abortion coverage. As a result, it effectively prohibits both private health insurance plans participating in the future-envisioned insurance “exchange,” where individuals and small businesses could shop for insurance policies at competitive prices, and whatever public option may come into being, from offering abortion coverage to any woman. Reports earlier this week suggested that under the amendment’s provisions only a relatively small number of women would lose abortion benefits. But that assertion — based on a poorly understood 2001 figure from the Guttmacher Institute — turns out to be wishful thinking.

A solid majority — and perhaps as many as 87 percent — of typical employer-based insurance policies currently offer their subscribers abortion coverage. The Stupak-Pitts amendment, if incorporated into law, could make it impossible for millions of women to purchase insurance policies that cover abortion. Subsidies, after all, will be offered to all women in families of four earning up to $88,000 a year. Those buying individual coverage, those working for small businesses, those working for larger businesses but paying health care premiums that eat up more than 12 percent of their income, will all be eligible to participate in an exchange. And, as the House legislation is written, firms with more than 100 employees could in a few years be eligible to buy insurance via the exchange, too.

“You can really see those numbers growing,” Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families told me of the women threatened by the loss of coverage.

The pro-choice, pro-health reform advocates I spoke with this week remained confident that they would be able to nudge Congress to soften the Stupak-Pitts restraints in a final health care reform compromise. They took heart from the fact that a vigorous public insurance option — an idea pronounced a dead letter not so many months ago — did at last make it into the House’s legislation. But there’s one key difference: the American public widely supported the public option, polls showed this fall. The support for abortion rights now isn’t so solid.

A Pew Research Center survey released last month showed Americans’ support for abortion rights is at a striking low — down to 47 percent — after hovering consistently just above 50 percent since at least the mid-1990s. And despite the passionate outrage expressed by high-profile abortion rights supporters this week, most of the pro-choice public just doesn’t appear to be all that fired up about fighting for the freedom to choose anymore. According to the Pew poll, only 15 percent of people overall say abortion is a “critical” issue today, and even among those described as liberal Democrats, that proportion has dropped 26 points, from 34 percent to 8 percent, since 2006.

Stupak-Pitts passed not just because a group of Catholic bishops bore down on Democratic lawmakers. It passed because it could. Maybe because our cultural memory is short; because our fantasyland nostalgia for a world of stay-at-home moms and gray flannel dads is too great, because when push comes to shove, in tough times, there’s still a willingness to throw women under the bus.

Abortion access is already all but gone in many states; it has been so for years. Virginia recently elected a governor despite his well-publicized early writing on how working women are “detrimental to the family,” and despite his record of voting against ending wage discrimination between men and women.

Last night, I watched “By the People,” HBO’s new documentary on the election of Barack Obama.

“We’re gonna change our country. We’re gonna change the world,” I heard candidate Obama say.

But we didn’t. And, at this point, I sometimes wonder if we ever really wanted to.