Michigan, “Rape Insurance,” and Pro-Choice’s Choice

I have a bit of a policy when it comes to state laws restricting reproductive rights… I don’t pay much attention until they pass. Covering proposed laws would be all-consuming – there were 694 in just the first three months of 2013 – and doing so would distract from the more important issue; The anti-choice strategy of getting one of these laws appealed up to The Supreme Court, in order to get Roe v. Wade overturned.

Which brings us to Michigan, where legislators recently passed a law that prohibits private insurers from covering abortion, even in cases of rape or incest; Women who want coverage for abortion must purchase a separate rider at an additional cost. Supporters argue that the law protects anti-choicers from having to pay for something they object to; Opponents argue that the law places financial restrictions on abortion access, and that by denying coverage even to victims of rape or incest, the state is essentially telling women that they must either buy ‘rape insurance‘ or risk bearing the cost of ending a pregnancy borne of rape. The bill was presented to the legislature by way of a petition signed by just 4% of state residents, and is opposed by more than 60%. It’s an all-too-common case of elected representatives opposing the will of the people, in service to a different master.

It’s not a new strategy. Eight states already have laws prohibiting insurers from covering abortion, only one has an exception for rape, and at least half have been in place for over 30 years. There’s a similar law being considered in Ohio, and it goes even further by not providing a ‘rider’ or any other option for women to choose to purchase a policy that covers abortion. In it passes, it will be impossible in Ohio for a woman to have health insurance that covers abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.

The excellent writer and activist Jessica Valenti points out that the ‘rape insurance’ moniker does a disservice to women; “… we cannot create a hierarchy of “good” and “bad” abortions. Or of “deserving” women. One in three American women will have an abortion, and the circumstances behind that pregnancy is none of our business—and it certainly should have no bearing on whether or not women can afford to access care.”

She goes on to point out that by focusing on the most extreme and sympathetic consequences of such laws (like rape and incest,) the pro-choice movement sets itself up for failure. “… what happens if Michigan anti-choicers decide they can live with a rape exception? Most women will still not have coverage for the care they need. This is similar to what happened in Virginia when feminists protested a transvaginal ultrasound mandate as “state rape.” Focusing on the most controversial aspect of the law got a lot of attention, but it also meant that once the transvaginal requirement was removed, low income women still lost out—because an abdominal ultrasound mandate remained, forcing women to pay hundreds of dollars out of pocket for an unnecessary procedure.”

So the new law in Michigan is deserving of attention for a number of reasons. Most obviously its cruelty and misogyny, more subtly its role in the national effort to circumvent and overturn Roe, and finally, the strategic dilemma it places on the pro-choice movement.  Do we focus on the effects most likely to win public support, even if that approach violates fundamental feminist principles? Or do we hold the line that no one is more deserving of choice than another, even if that makes the battle harder to win?

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