Health Reform: Abortion is the Wrong Fight at the Wrong Time

As a Baptist minister from Nebraska born in Louisiana, I have watched from the pulpit as three formative events profoundly reshaped America’s view of its destiny and possibilities: the 9-11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and the recent economic meltdown.

I hoped that this year, life would be better for my congregants. While standing with millions in Washington, D.C. listening to President Obama’s inaugural address in January, I reflected on the fact that it heralded an end to the Reagan era:  a time in which government was viewed, first and foremost, as the problem.  Our new President instead promised all of us that government would be part of the solution – not the whole solution, mind you – but a critical part, including setting new rules to ensure that more Americans would have a fair shake.

Fast forward a mere 11 months, and in the fight to enact health care reform and its promise of extending insurance coverage to 37 million uninsured Americans, this expansive vision is on the ropes.  Political pundits on the talk shows are already hailing the demise of reform as the collapse of a dream.  But this is not 1994, and the era in which cynicism about government can be mistaken for sound policy on governing should be over by now for good.

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, we saw what this commitment to small government meant for people stuck on rooftops and in the Stadium.  Underfunded, unprepared and underutilized, the first responders’ valiant, if insufficient, efforts proved to the world that America was capable of neglect of, and deep indifference towards, the poorest among us.  Although less visible to television viewers, the recent recession has wreaked a similar devastation upon American families, who are losing jobs, homes and their small savings in the continuing turmoil. 

Given these high stakes, it is critical that voices of faith in the larger community understand that, with the health care reform debate as a proxy, we are choosing among possible futures for our country.  Through our charities, schools and churches, we have all seen the high costs of the lack of a social safety net for poor families.  We are often the community that people in trouble turn to for help when government fails them.  The question we now face is:  will we live in a society that provides care for the sick and the injured, or one that continues on this path of callousness despite a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots?

As in the fight by previous generations for Medicare and Social Security, this is a defining moment.  Against the backdrop, it is shocking to me as a person of faith that religious voices – those who should understand more than others what is being decided and what it means for poor and working families – are choosing to put a narrow agenda item like abortion before the goal of expanding coverage, and these same voices are evidently willing to threaten collapse of reform if their particular demands go unmet. 

Religious leaders should stand up against this hijacking of the health care reform agenda, which has been about expanding, rather than restricting, coverage.  Regardless of views on the issue of abortion, it is currently a constitutional and legal choice for women.  A lack of coverage for abortion services may drive women to less reputable providers, and imposes hardships mainly on those who cannot afford health services more generally. 

Moreover, provisions in the bill already assure that no federal funding will cover abortions, and that millions of women who will be added to the Medicare and Medicaid rolls will be subjected to highly restrictive policies on coverage for abortion (limited to rape, incest and the life of the mother).  Yet, for some, these stringent requirements have not been enough.

It would be a profound tragedy if a handful of religious leaders in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, however heart-felt their objections, ended up blocking health care reform passage.  The margins for enactment are already thin from disagreements over the need for a public option and how to pay for the plan.

Picking a fight over abortion services coverage, and ultimately, choosing to put such restrictions before the protections that millions of American families need most in these troubled times, would be an intolerable abdication of religious leadership.  Such a spectacle might cause many people of faith to think twice about the religious leaders that claim to speak for them, and about the role of the church in the fate and future of our country.

Instead of blocking reform, religious leaders and people of faith must stand up for a larger vision: a more powerful role for government in protecting families and addressing the causes and problems of poverty.  The stakes are too high, and the dream too important, to let mere politics get in the way.         

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  • waterjoe

    The bishops wanted to maintain the status quo with regards to federal policy. It was the the abortion rights crowd that hijacked the health care reform bill.

  • truth

    If you call yourself a follower of Christ, then you MUST uphold His most basic tenent. "Whatsoever you do to the least of my people; that you do unto Me!" Furthermore, if you question whether an unborn child is a human being then your heart is hardened. I will leave you with this: Notice that in Jeremiah 1:5 we are told that God KNEW Jeremiah:"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations." God Bless and may you find Christ. Right now you are leading his sheep to the slaughter – your responsibility is great due to the title you have bestowed upon yourself. I pray for you.

  • mechashiva

    Yeah, it was totally pro-choicers who introduced pork-barrel legislation specifically concerning abortion.


    Oh, wait…

  • nycmom

    In 1976 when Senator Hyde proposed prohibiting medicaid funding for medically necessary abortions, he said “I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion, a rich woman, a middle class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the [Medicaid] bill.” Thirty-two years later, his followers have finally found a means to impose their own religious views on other women. Shame on the bishops for trying to hijack health care reform and for putting their own political agenda before the needs of the millions of uninsured people in this country.

  • waterjoe

    The prochoicers could have truly maintained federal policy in the bills – which would have precluded anyone receiving a subsidy from purchasing a policy that includes abortion.  That is the current policy, like it or not. Instead, they chose to allow the purchase of such policies with subsidies.  Rather than focusing on health care reform, they used reform to expand abortion coverage and go against the opinions of most Americans.  Just because the Stupak Amendment came later does not mean that the anti-abortion groups hijacked the process.  In their mind, especially to those who want health care reform, like the U.S. Bishops, they were trying to rescue reform.

  • crowepps

    If God knew Jeremiah BEFORE he was conceived, if his soul existed before the egg and spern merged, are you saying that soul would have been destroyed along with the zygote?  If the soul is seperate from the body and eternal, why would that happen?  This sort of argument sounds terrific until you follow it till its illogical dead end.

  • crowepps

    It cannot possibly be "current policy" that Federal health insurance subsidies can’t include abortion since at the current time there aren’t any Federal health insurance subsidies.  If you’re talking about health insurance for Federal employees, those are not ‘subsidized’ but instead provided as a part of their compensation package, and that insurance does include abortion in cases where the mother’s life is threatened AND in cases of rape and incest.  Perhaps we need to start agitating to have Federal employees health insurance cover the REST of the cases where the majority of the population agrees abortion is appropriate – non-viable or grossly deformed fetus and where the woman’s health is endangered.

  • jenh

    Rev. Butler, abortion is not a “narrow agenda item.” It is the ultimate human rights issue, the preeminent social justice issue of our time. The poorest of the poor are the unborn, and they have no voice but ours. Your voice, as a follower of Christ, should be raised in their defense. I am extremely grateful for the courage the Catholic bishops have shown and their determination that health care reform must protect ALL human life. Abortion is NOT health care, period.

  • jenh

    Yes, God knew Jeremiah and you before He formed you in the darkness of your mother’s womb. The soul cannot be killed by abortion, and I think you know that. Stop picking childish fights.

  • harry834

    Why has He never commented on this blog rather than have people like JenH speak for Him? I’m sure He has something better than any human’s computer. Surely He can post, show up for interviews, etc. Why doesn’t He?

  • colleen

    The poorest of the poor are the unborn, and they have no voice but ours.



    Oh stop. The poorest of the poor are people living on one or two dollars a day with an average fertility rate of 5-7 children per women. The poorest of the poor aere people who have no access to healthcare in this country. The poorest of the poor are the one in 5 children in this country who go hungry.

    Doing something about THAT would be difficult. Fetal idolatry, while entertaining to the worst sorts of Christians, does nothing but dehumanize women which is why y’all obsess on it.



    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • crowepps

    I wasn’t picking a childish fight.  I was responding to a childish argument.

  • emma

    It is really annoying when people think quoting bible verses constitutes a convincing argument. It’s nice to know, however, that those who call themselves ‘pro-life’ don’t give a damn about the 45 000 people per year in the US who die as a result of having no health insurance. I guess once you’re born, your life matters not.


    Anyway, excellent article. Thanks.

  • the-watcher

    Then why are we arguing about abortion? Why not just get out of the way and let women who want them, have them? You just admitted there’s no harm done.

  • prochoicegoth

    If the soul is not destroyed, then what’s the issue? Couldn’t that soul find another body to inhabit? If the soul is okay, then why is abortion so wrong? You’re grasping at straws. 


    It’s pro-choice or
    NO choice.