Exploiting the Health Care Debate to Restrict Abortion

This article originally appeared on Salon.com.

It was discouraging to hear Barack Obama, the man I supported for
president, announce so resolutely during his speech to Congress last
week that "under our [healthcare] plan no federal dollars will be used
to fund abortion." It was infuriating, however, that before the morning
cock could crow following the speech Jim Wallis of the antiabortion
organization Sojourners was claiming that the president’s remarks on
abortion were just what "a broad coalition of the faith community had
asked for — no federal funding for abortions."

I had been
prepared for Obama to close the door on a healthcare reform package
that would include funding abortions for women who rely on Medicaid for
health coverage. Low-income women already lost that right 30 years ago
when the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment. I believe a
principled compromise to maintain the status quo on abortion is
justified if it gets us better healthcare for millions of men and women
and security from the rapaciousness of the insurance industry. And no
pro-choice organization wants to bear the responsibility for healthcare
reform failing. And so, tacitly, pro-choice leaders have basically
accepted that the Hyde Amendment restrictions, as well as those that
deny federal workers, women in the military and women who get
healthcare on Indian reservations funding for abortion, would be
reflected in the healthcare package.

Unfortunately, the good will
shown by the pro-choice community has not been met with a good-faith
effort by Wallis and his friends. They now hope to use the president’s
promise as a way to press for further restrictions on abortion coverage
in the final healthcare legislation. As one moderate pro-life leader
told me, "It is going to be a long fall." All the talk about finding
common ground on abortion and the emergence of moderate pro-lifers is
floundering as Wallis and a few others prepare to push Congress and the
White House for further concessions. "[The president’s] commitment to
these principles," said Wallis, "means we can now work together to make
sure that they are consistently and diligently applied to any final
healthcare legislation." For Wallis, that means that "no person should
be forced to pay for someone else’s abortion and that public funds
cannot be used to pay for elective abortions."

Before the congressional recess, the moderate pro-lifers and
pro-choice leaders had pretty much agreed that both sides would not
seek provisions in healthcare reform that would change the status quo.
Rep Lois Capps, D-Calif., codified that agreement in an amendment to
the House bill. The Capps Amendment gave those opposed to abortion both
the guarantee they wanted that providers would have adequate conscience
protection against having to provide abortions and a prohibition on the
use of federal funds to pay for abortions in accordance with Hyde and
other current federal law. It made no change in the ability of private
insurance plans to decide whether or not to cover abortions, but
prohibited private plans from using federal subsidy dollars for
abortions. It provides that every state have at least one plan that
offers abortion coverage and one that does not, so that someone really
opposed to abortion can buy a plan that does not cover that service.

it now seems, is not enough for Wallis and company. They now want to be
sure that if an anti-choice person chooses a plan that does cover
abortion, the minuscule part of his premium that is allocated to
abortion coverage for all subscribers is not used for abortion. Stephen
Schenk, a moderate pro-life Catholic and a professor at Catholic
University, wants healthcare reform to extend the Hyde Amendment beyond
those groups that are already denied coverage to everyone. "If we are
stuck with the Capps Amendment," he says, "we are going to have
problems." Chris Korzen of Catholics United, a small Catholic advocacy
group that claims to be progressive, is worried that the public option
plan is going to offer abortion coverage. Although it will be funded
through premiums and there will be at least one private plan in the
"exchange" that those opposed to abortion can buy, Korzen is now poised
to oppose abortion coverage in the plan most designed to help
low-income people.

Enough already! This is not an attempt to
achieve common ground and use common sense. This is not that different
from the hard-line Catholic bishops and Family Research Council effort
to use public policy and healthcare reform to make abortion less
available than it already is and stigmatize every woman who even
contemplates it. And frankly, while Christian progressives like Korzen
and Wallis are spending all their time worrying about abortion, they’re
ignoring the major gap in all the plans — the exclusion of
undocumented workers living in the U.S. I always thought faith-inspired
social justice advocates were the ones I could count on to go out on a
limb for what is right, even if it gives the president they helped
elect a hard time. I guess I was wrong.

The irony of all this is that Wallis and Korzen don’t represent the
majority views of either mainline or progressive religion on abortion.
How long the mainline pro-choice faith community will allow Wallis and
a few small groups of progressive Catholics to use healthcare reform to
push for further restrictions on abortion remains to be seen. For
Wallis and others to assert that denying poor women the same access to
abortion as other women is moral and "what a broad coalition of the
faith community had asked for" is as dishonest as claiming, like Joe
"You Lie" Wilson, that the healthcare reform plans are going to provide
coverage to undocumented workers.

The broad coalition Wallis
refers to is, in fact, a specific group that is largely in favor of
federal funding for abortion. All the members of the group have done is
to put that support on the back burner in hopes of getting healthcare
reform passed. Organized under the umbrella name "40 Days for
Healthcare Reform," the coalition draws on about 25 denominations and
independent interfaith groups for various actions. Many of these groups
are on record as supporting public funding for abortion and have worked
to overturn the Hyde Amendment. They include the Religious Action
Center of Reform Judaism, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal
Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA,
Faith in Public Life, and the Disciples of Christ. Some religious
groups that are not part of the 40 Days campaign are also on record as
supporting Medicaid funding for abortion. The National Coalition of
American Nuns has no position on abortion itself but has since 1976
supported providing federal funds for poor women’s abortions, asserting
that it would be discriminatory to coerce poor women into continuing
pregnancies by denying them the same right to decide as women who can
afford to pay for their own abortions.

So eager are Wallis and
his antiabortion friends to convince the media and policymakers that
progressive religion is antiabortion that they have stacked the deck
and excluded some pro-choice organizations from the effort to pass
healthcare reform. The Web site for the 40 Days campaign sets forward
criteria for membership that exclude religious groups working on
"single issues" — code for abortion. For example, the Religious
Coalition for Reproductive Choice was told that if it sent in a
sponsorship fee for one of the many actions, its check would be
returned. The group, founded by the Women’s Division of the United
Methodist Church, had sent a letter to members of Congress strongly
supportive of federal funding for poor women’s abortions in healthcare
reform. The letter is signed by religious leaders like the deans of the
Howard University and Episcopal divinity schools, as well as Nancy
Ratzen, president of the National Council of Jewish Women and a member
of Obama’s faith-based advisory council.

Wallis and the rest need
to be called to accountability for their decision to push an
antiabortion agenda in the midst of what was meant to be an effort to
reform healthcare. Otherwise, we will see the moral commitment most
mainline and progressive religious groups have to respecting the
consciences of poor and low-income women deeply compromised. Abortion
is not going to sink healthcare reform, but poor faith leadership can
sink the opportunity of poor women for a decent life.

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  • douglasjohnson

    I respectfully suggest to Jim Wallis that he needs to develop way more skepticism about utterances by Barack Obama, such as the President’s September 9 statement, "Under our plan, no federal dollars will be used to fund abortions."


    That is because under the pending bills being advanced by the President’s top allies in Congress, federal dollars would be used to fund elective abortions on a huge scale.  The pro-life amendments that would have prevented this were voted down at the direction of senior Democratic lawmakers allied with the White House in four different congressional committees — and the White House staff rightfully claimed part of the credit, as reported more than once in reports posted by pro-abortion commentators on this very website.


    Moreover, Mr. Wallis should consider that for months, the President, his staff, and his congressional allies have actively misrepresented the actual language in their bills that would result in government funding of elective abortions. The latest statements by Mr. Obama, echoed by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius in recent interviews, are most likely a continuation of their strategy of employing contrived terminology, misdirection, evasion, and misrepresentation.


    To Mr. Wallis and to all, we say: Watch what they do, not what they say.


    Regarding the current legislation, the abortion components are no illusion. The current House bill, H.R. 3200, as amended in committee with the Capps-Waxman Amendment, would explicitly authorize the public plan to pay for elective abortions (as Francis Kissling tacitly acknowledges in her essay above). The funds that would be spent on those abortions would be federal funds, as a matter of law and as that term is used throughout the government.


    It would work like this: The abortionists would send their bills to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, and they would receive payment checks drawn on a U.S. Treasury account, in federal funds, which are the only kind of funds that DHHS can spend.
    This would be direct federal funding of elective abortion. It would be a drastic break from decades of federal policy, under which federal funds do not pay for abortions and do not subsidize insurance plans that cover abortions (except to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest).


    The claim by some pro-abortion advocates (such as Kissling) and the White House, that the public fund, which would be a federal program run by a federal agency, would be spending "private funds" on abortions is absurd on its face — a political hoax.  Federal agencies are not allow to spend "private funds." The funds they spend are called "federal funds."


    Another issue: The House bill would create big new federal subsidy programs to help tens of millions of people buy health insurance. Under the Capps Amendment, private plans that cover elective abortions would be eligible to receive these federal subsidies. Under the House bill, all of the money that would flow into the premium-subsidy fund in the U.S. Treasury would be general federal revenues and proceeds of special taxes — i.e., all would be federal funds. When the government pays for insurance, it pays for what the insurance pays for. All of the payments from the Treasury fund to insurance carriers also would be federal funds, of course. This, too, would be a complete break from longstanding federal policy (under Medicaid, Federal Employees Health Benefits program, etc.), under which federal funds do NOT subsidize health plans that include abortion coverage (except life of mother, rape, and incest).


    In short: A vote for the House bill, with the Capps-Waxman Amendment, is a vote to create big new federal programs that would pay for elective abortions directly with federal funds, and pay for private insurance coverage of elective abortions with federal funds.


    (The bill released on September 16 by Senator Max Baucus would also create a big premium subsidy program, to which Baucus proposes to attach Capps-like language, with the same problems. NRLC’s statement on the Baucus proposal is here.)


    The preposterous claims (by lifelong foes of the Hyde Amendment, such as Kissling) that the Capps-Waxman Amendment incorporated the Hyde Amendment principles, and was a good-faith "compromise," at this point have been so thoroughly discredited that even as faithful an Obama shill as Chris Korzen at Catholics United ("a small Catholic advocacy group") clearly feels the need for a bigger fig leaf.
    The real fight to keep the federal government out of the abortion subsidy business is being carried forward by the likes of Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Congressman Bart Stupak (D-Mi.), who co-chair the House Pro-Life Caucus. Mr. Stupak is pushing for an amendment to prohibit the abortion subsidies — the same amendment that was earlier blocked by the Democratic leadership, with collaboration of White House staff.


    Memo to Mr. Wallis: I am advised that Mr. Stupak has not received any letter from President Obama endorsing his amendment. In fact, according to an article published just a couple of days ago in The Weekly Standard, "Stupak has asked repeatedly for a meeting — or even a few minutes on the phone — with Obama to clear up any misunderstandings, but the White House hasn’t granted his requests." ("Democratic Dissenters," by John McCormack, The Weekly Standard, Sept. 21, 2009)


    National Right to Life recently put out a paper discussing what we see as superficial and erroneous reporting in the news media regarding the Capps Amendment and its effects, here: http://www.nrlc.org/AHC/Advisory090809.html


    The full documentation that all of the funds spent by the H.R. 3200 public plan would be federal funds, and that all of the funds that flow into and out of the premium-subsidy fund also would be federal funds, is here.:



    The full documentation that the actual Hyde Amendment (the current federal law) would not cover the new programs proposed in H.R. 3200, despite untenable claims to the contrary by the likes of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and RHRealityCheck.com blogger Amanda Marcotte, is here:


    Douglas Johnson

    Legislative Director

    National Right to Life Committee

    Washington, D.C.


  • marysia

    Douglas Johnson,

    I am deeply prolife.

    And I am very concerned that if Americans do not get universal, complete health coverage, women in the US will continue to have high numbers of abortions because, among other stressors cruelly & unnecessarily foisted on them by our punitive, stingy excuse of a social welfare system…they cannot afford contraception or prenatal, labor/delivery, postnatal care.

    Look at it this way, please…Even if abortions are funded through a reform plan…if women didn’t have these social policy induced stressors, like lack of basic health care, that make abortion appear the lesser of evils…the abortion rate would plummet…it is generally much lower in countries with universal health care…not a coincidence!

    However, if women go without universal health coverage, a lot of unintended pregnancies & abortions that could have easily been prevented will almost certainly happen, & keep happening, & keep happening…

    Not to mention that people experience other quite preventable forms of suffering & death for the lack of health coverage. If I didn’t have coverage, I would die within hours, health care is indispensible to mine & so many others’ right to life.

    Universal health care is in all these blatantly disregarded but central ways a *Prolife* issue.

    If prolifers sink health care reform in the name of prolife, you will have all this unncessary, preventable suffering & death on *your hands* already.

    Prolife is all too often reduced to is abortion illegal, is it defunded? Well, if prolifers spent more energy on looking at *why* so many women have unintended pregnancies & abortions…maybe the prolife movement would do a better job of saving & improving lives.

    And the problems are wayyyy too big for private CPCs to handle all alone. Systemic transformation of US society is needed, the sooner the better.

    Nonviolent Choice Directory, http://www.nonviolentchoice.blogspot.com