Washington, D.C.—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following remarks on the Senate floor this evening regarding the proposed Nelson amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Below are his remarks as prepared for delivery:
“There were 45,000 funerals in America this year that stood out from the rest. They were tearful, as all funerals are. They filled loved ones with sorrow and grief, as many of us know first-hand. But these 45,000 funerals were also more tragic than most – because 45,000 times this year – nearly 900 times a week, more than 120 times a day, on average every 10 minutes, without end – Americans died as a direct result of not having health insurance.
“That’s a sickening number. You’d have to be heartless not to be horrified. And it doesn’t even include those who did have health insurance, but died because it was not enough to meet their most basic needs.
“That is what this is about. But it’s not even just about death. How many citizens in each of our states are bankrupt and broke because of our broken health system? How many have to choose between their mother’s chemo treatments and their daughter’s college tuition? How many have to work two or three jobs to provide for a family they are never home to see, all because of an accident or an illness that some insurance executive calls a pre-existing condition?
“So many of these tragedies could have been prevented. And if our nation truly values the sanctity of life, as I believe it does, we will do everything we can to prevent them.
“That is why we are pushing so hard to make it possible for every American to afford good health. It is why we can’t take no for an answer, and why we will not let the American people down.
“That value is also evident in the amendment before us today.
“As many know, for nearly 28 years – as a Member of the United States House of Representatives, of the United States Senate and as the Senate Majority Leader – I have consistently cast my vote against abortion.
“To me, it’s not about partisanship or political points or polling data. To me, it’s a matter of conscience.
“I might not be the loudest on this topic, but that does not make my beliefs any less strong. I might oppose abortion, but that does not mean I am opposed to finding common ground for the greater good.
“My belief in the sanctity of life is why I have repeatedly voted against using taxpayer money for abortions. It’s why I have repeatedly voted against covering abortions in federal employees’ health insurance plans, and repeatedly voted against allowing federal facilities to be used for abortions.
“But I recognize that abortion is an emotional issue. Many Senators in this body disagree, just as many citizens around the country disagree. But divisive issues do not have to divide us. There is value in finding common ground.
“Among this institution’s immortals is Senator Henry Clay, who worked under the premise that, as he said, ‘all legislation is founded upon the principle of mutual concession.’
“It is in that spirit that I have been able to work with colleagues to my left and to my right – Congressmen and Senators who are pro-life like I am, and those who are pro-choice.
“One of the ways I have done that is by trying to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancies.
“Our great country leads the world in many ways. But this area is not one in which we take much pride. The United States has one of the highest rates of unintended pregnancies among all industrialized nations. Half of all pregnancies in America – every other one – is unintended. And of those, nearly half end in abortion.
“I’ve worked to stop this problem before it starts. In 1997, Senator Olympia Snowe and I started the first of many efforts to improve access to contraception. We said that health plans should treat prescription contraception the same way they treat other prescription medications. We even passed a law that ensures that federal employees have access to contraception. This proves what is possible when Senators of different backgrounds, both of good faith, work with each other rather than against each other.
“In this case, a pro-life Democrat and a pro-choice Republican followed common sense and found common ground. I have always been appreciative of Senator Snowe for her cooperation and courage. I continue to be grateful.
“Let’s not forget that the historic bill before us will continue those efforts. By making sure all Americans can get good health care, we will reduce the number of unintended pregnancies at the root of this issue. That is a goal both Democrats and Republicans can agree is worthwhile.
“In that and in many other respects, the bill before us is a good, strong and historic one. It is a bill that will affect the lives of every single American, and will do so for the better. It will – as you’ve heard me say many times – save lives, save money and save Medicare.
“But you have also heard me say that this bill deserves to go through the legislative process, and that process includes amendments. It warrants additions, subtractions and modifications, as the Senate sees fit. That is an appropriate process, one that has served this body well for more than two centuries.
“The amendment before us today, offered by Senator Nelson of Nebraska, would make dramatic changes to current law in America. So it is worth examining what that law says, how this bill would treat it and what this amendment would require in addition – and then evaluating whether it improves the overall effort.
“As current law dictates, not a single taxpayer dollar can be used to pay for an abortion. There are very few – but very serious – exceptions to this rule: those are explicitly limited to cases in which the life of mother is in danger, and when the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest.
“This law is called the Hyde Amendment, and it has been on the books since the late Republican Congressman Henry Hyde wrote it in 1976. I have great respect for Henry Hyde, and recall fondly how this Illinois Congressman came to campaign for me in Nevada. We worked together in a time when a Republican could campaign for a Democrat and not fear retribution or condemnation from his own party.
“When we drafted the health reform bill now under consideration, we worked hard to come up with a compromise between pro-life and pro-choice Senators. On one side, there are some Senators who do not believe abortion should be legal, let alone mentioned in any health plan. On the other side, there are Senators who do not want a woman’s access to legal abortion to depend on which health plan she can afford, and they wanted that reflected in this bill.
“And so, legislating in pursuit of mutual concession, as Senator Clay advised, we struck a compromise. It is a compromise that recognizes people of good faith can have different beliefs. And instead of trying to settle the sensitive question of abortion rights in this bill, we found a fair middle ground.
“That compromise is that we maintain current law. We are faithful to the Hyde Amendment, which has been in place for the past 33 years. Let me be clear: as our bill currently reads, no insurance plans in the new marketplace we create – whether private or public – would be allowed to use taxpayer money for abortions beyond the limits of existing law.
“But we don’t stop there: The bill takes special care to keep public and private dollars separate to make sure that happens.
“This isn’t a new concept. It’s worth noting that this practice of segregating money is consistent with other existing rules that make sure the public doesn’t pay for things it shouldn’t. It’s consistent with the existing Medicaid practice that gives states the option of covering abortions at their own expense. And it mirrors practices already in place to separate church and state by ensuring money the federal government gives religious organizations is not used for religious practices. So we are not reinventing the wheel here.
“And just as current law demands, the bill respects the conscience of both individual health care providers and health care facilities. And once again, it goes further: our bill not only safeguards a long list of federal laws regarding conscience protections and refusal rights, but it even outlaws discrimination against those health care providers and facilities with moral and religious objections to abortion.
“That means if a doctor does not believe it right to perform an abortion, he or she can say no. No questions asked. Health care facilities like Catholic Hospitals – which is the largest non-government, non-profit health care provider in the country – will continue to have the same right to refuse to perform abortions.
“Under our bill, at least one plan that does not cover abortion services will have to be offered in each exchange – so no one will be forced to enroll in a plan that covers abortion services. This is an improvement, since the current marketplace doesn’t provide a similar guarantee.
“So it’s clear to see that the current bill does not expand nor restrict anyone’s access to abortion. Period. It does not force any health plans to cover abortion, or prohibit them from doing so. Period.
“Why? Because this bill is about access to health care, not access to abortions.
“I have great respect for Senator Ben Nelson. His integrity and independence reflects well on the Nebraskans he represents. His strong beliefs are rooted in his strong values – but he shows, better than most, that one can be steadfast without being stubborn. Senator Nelson has always been a gentleman whose consideration is the true portrait of how a United States Senator should conduct oneself.
“As I mentioned, our underlying bill leaves current law where it is. This amendment, however, does not.
“It goes further than the standard that has guided this country for the last 33 years. It would place limits not only on taxpayer money, which I support, but also on private money.
“Again, current law already forbids federal funds from paying for abortions, and our bill doesn’t weaken that rule one bit. I believe current law is sufficient, and I do not believe we need to go further – specifically, I do not believe that the Senate needs to go as far as this amendment would take us.
“No one should use the health care bill to expand or restrict abortion. And no one should use the issue of abortion to rob millions of the opportunity to get good health care.
“This is not the right place for this debate. We have to get on with the larger issue at hand. We have to keep moving toward the finish line and cannot be distracted by detours or derailed by diversions.
“I started by saying I believe in the sanctity of life. But my strong belief that value does not end when a child is born. It continues throughout the lifetime of every person.
“With this bill, nearly every American will be able to afford the care they need to stay healthy, or care for a loved one. It respects life.
“Those who today have nowhere to turn will soon have security against what Harry Truman called ‘the economic effects of sickness.’ It respects life.
“Those who suffer from disease, from injury or from disability will no longer be told by a claims adjuster they never met that they are on their own. It respects life.
“It will help seniors afford every prescription drug they need so they don’t have to decide which pills to skip and which pills to split. It respects life.
“We will stop terrible illnesses before they start, and stop Americans from dying of diseases we know how to treat. It respects life.
“We will stop terrible abuses, like an insurance company looking at its earnings report instead of your doctor’s report, and charging rates that make good health a luxury. It respects life.
“We will ensure the most vulnerable and the least prosperous among us can afford to go to the doctor when they are sick – not to the emergency room, where the rest of us pick up the bill. It respects life.
“This bill recognizes that health care is a human right. This bill respects life.
“The issue in this amendment is not the only so-called moral issue in this debate. The ability of all Americans to afford and access the care they need to stay healthy is also a question of morality.
“The reason I oppose abortion and the reason I support this historic bill are the same: I respect the sanctity of life.
“This is a health care bill. It is not an abortion bill. We cannot afford to miss the big picture. It is bigger than any one issue. Neither this amendment, nor any other, should overshadow the entire bill or overwhelm the entire process.
“Throughout my entire political career, I have voted my conscience on the subject of abortion. As I said, that decision is based on personal principles. My vote today will also honor another principle that I believe to my very core, and that I will believe until my very last day: we must make it possible for every American to afford a healthy life.
“I believe that the compromise in our current bill, and the current bill itself, fully fulfill both of these moral imperatives. And I believe that when we are given the trust of our neighbors, the privilege to lead, the opportunity to improve others’ lives, we cannot turn our backs.
“We cannot turn our backs on the tens of millions of Americans who have no health insurance at all. We cannot turn our backs on the many more who do, but who live just one accident, one illness or one pink slip away from losing it.
“One of our nation’s most cherished charters – drafted by one of our most beloved leaders – declared life to be the first among several of our absolute rights. Jefferson put it before even liberty, before the pursuit of happiness.
“If we still truly value life in America – if we still truly value the life of every American – we cannot turn our backs on the 14,000 of us who lose health coverage every single day of every single week of the year – no weekends off, no vacations.
“How many of the thousands of men, women and children who today will be kicked out into the cold will next year become one of the tens of thousands who die because of it? If we value the sanctity of life – as I know that we do – and fix what is broken – as I know that we must – we won’t have to find out.
“I believe in this bill and what it will do for our country and our constituents. And I will not support efforts to undermine this historic legislation.”