Photo By David Robert U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, an abortion opponent, fought for an amendment favored by abortion supporters.

Enactment of changes in federal bankruptcy law got caught up in the abortion wars as the result of a proposal sponsored by U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Harry Reid of Nevada.

The Schumer/Reid language sought to prevent anyone who broke the 1994 law that prohibits violently impeding access to abortion clinics from declaring bankruptcy to avoid paying legal judgments won against them for that behavior. Their amendment, which needed 51 votes, was defeated last week on a 53-46 vote.

Reid then voted for the basic bankruptcy measure, which would make it harder to declare bankruptcy. Reid has already (in July 2001) supported a measure requiring debtors able to repay $10,000 or 25 percent of their debts over five years to file under Chapter 13 bankruptcy (reorganization and repayment) rather than Chapter 7 (full discharge of debt). Congress is under heavy pressure from credit card companies and the banking industry to crack down on bankruptcies, with labor unions and consumer groups opposing changes. The new bill, which was approved on a 74 to 25 Senate vote, would also restrict access to Chapter 7.

Similar abortion language killed bankruptcy changes in 2002, but the Senate Republican leadership was able to prevent that outcome this time. The bill now goes to the even friendlier clime of the House of Representatives, which is expected to approve it easily.

The abortion language enabled Reid to score points with Democratic Party activists who have repeatedly pointed to his anti-abortion record as evidence that he’s the wrong man for the job of Senate Democratic floor leader. It was the first abortion vote of the new Congress.

“Those who resort to violence are violating not only our laws, but our American principles and values…” Reid said in a floor speech before the vote. “I want to emphasize that this amendment is not about the right to abortion, nor does it single out anti-abortion protestors. This amendment applies to anyone who violates a law related to the provision of lawful goods and services. Therefore, it applies to any extremist who turns to violence to protest lawful activities.”

After the abortion language was defeated, Reid took some heat from some of the same activists for supporting the bankruptcy bill itself.

One online critic at the influential DailyKos.com said a recent Harvard study reported that about half of all bankruptcies are caused by medical bills and then asked, “Why is Harry Reid (of the people’s party) ignoring contrary facts on this issue? Does he turn his back on the evidence that the bankruptcies are coming from the insured, but sick, middle class?” (The Harvard study showed that about 30 percent of bankruptcies are fueled by direct medical bills and another 20 percent by related expenses, such as alcohol abuse programs.)

The Progressive magazine listed Reid among the “spineless 18,” and its editor, Matthew Rothchild, said, “Half the people who file for bankruptcy do so because of sky-high medical bills, and another 40 percent due so because of disability, job loss, family death, or divorce, according to the National Consumer Law Center. If you make more than the median income in your state, no matter how high your bills are, you can’t wipe the debts clean. … And even if your debts are the consequence of identity theft, of someone stealing your credit card and running up charges, you still are on the hook for them, as the Senate amazingly voted down an amendment to shelter victims of identity theft.”

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...