WASHINGTON — Pro-life advocates say that provisions to allow the largest expansion of abortion since it was legalized in 1973 will likely be part of a national health-care overhaul.
Catholic and pro-life leaders said it appears Democratic leaders have dropped negotiations to add a ban on federal funding for elective abortions and are pushing ahead with a final vote this week so President Obama can sign it before departing on an overseas trip.
The apparent decision by Democratic leaders to push for final passage of a bill previously passed by only the Senate means that pro-life provisions — including a ban on taxpayer-funded abortions and conscience protections for health-care workers — will not be included in any law that is enacted.
“Our impression is that the House leadership has decided to ram through the Senate-passed bill without accommodating any of our concerns regarding abortion or conscience rights,” said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of pro-life activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
Representatives for the Democratic House leadership did not respond to messages from the Register.
In published reports last week, Democratic leaders said they plan to move for a final vote as soon as the weekend of March 20. A day before those reports, Obama announced plans to delay his departure for a previously planned trip to South Asia until March 21.
The announcement came as Democratic leaders appeared to have dropped discussions with pro-life Democrats in the House on ways to amend the Senate bill to include restrictions on taxpayer funding of abortion.
Pro-life Democrats, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., sought strong pro-life protections similar to the ones Stupak had added to a health-care overhaul bill previously passed by the House. Stupak said up to 12 other pro-life Democrats who previously voted for the House-passed bill would oppose a final bill without abortion-funding restrictions.
Democratic leaders previously appeared to need the continued support of the pro-life Democrats for final passage of the health-care measure because they faced unified Republican opposition, and the earlier version of the legislation squeaked through the House on only a five-vote margin.
The announcement of a final vote on the health-care bill with as little as a week’s notice sent Catholic and pro-life groups scrambling to renew congressional and popular support for an abortion-funding ban.
Doerflinger said there was insufficient time to send a formal notice from the bishops to parishes nationwide, but the USCCB was notifying subscribers to its e-mail service and encouraging Catholics to print out the notice of a final vote posted on its website and place it in their local churches.
Additionally, Catholic and pro-life groups reached out to pro-life Democrats in the House to inform them of the range of ethical concerns that remain unresolved in the final bill.
Democratic leaders “are trying to create the false impression that pro-life opposition is collapsing,” said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee.
Although Stupak never identified his Democratic pro-life supporters, most of the representatives who observers believed to be in that group offered public comments in recent weeks indicating they remained committed to a strong ban on public funding for abortions.
One possible exception was Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Ohio, who told a reporter in March that he was satisfied with the weaker Senate abortion-funding ban. Wilson’s office did not respond to calls from the Register.
However, the possibility of one or two pro-life defections did not concern anti-abortion advocates, as long as the overall coalition held together.
“Even if some of the pro-lifers jump ship that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Speaker will have the votes she needs,” Johnson said.
Resistance to Pressure
The decision by Democratic leaders to focus on garnering support among the House Democrats who were not among the pro-life members of Congress, according to legislative staff, stemmed, in part, from the realization that pro-life changes would either cost them pro-abortion support or would not be permitted under the complex legislative rules they planned to use for passage.
Perhaps the most important points from the perspective of Democratic leaders were that pro-life House Democrats were morally committed to their position and it was very important to their constituents. That constituent priority was evident in a March survey that found that a majority of voters in seven of eight congressional districts represented by pro-life Democrats — all of whom supported barring federal taxpayer funding for elective abortions — were less likely to re-elect their congressional representative if that member voted for a health-care bill that included federal abortion funding. The polls were conducted by inc./Woman Trend for the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List and surveyed voters in House districts held by Democratic Reps. Steve Driehaus, Charlie Wilson, Marcy Kaptur and John Boccieri of Ohio, Jason Altmire and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania, and Brad Ellsworth and Baron Hill of Indiana.
Opposing the health-care bill “is a hard vote only within the Democratic caucus. It’s not a hard vote when they go back home,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.
But such polls can never replace the impact on members of Congress hearing directly from their constituents on important issues, said pro-life advocates. They urged abortion opponents to contact their congressional representatives immediately, even if voters had done so previously, to ensure their view on taxpayer funding for abortion is heard before any health-care overhaul is enacted into law.
Doerflinger highlighted the likely consequences of enactment of a health-care bill without an abortion-funding ban by comparing it to the federal Medicaid program. Although the legislation establishing the Medicaid program never mentioned abortion, courts concluded that any health-care program must fund the procedure unless it was expressly prohibited. The result: More than 300,000 taxpayer-funded abortions were conducted annually through Medicaid after abortion was legalized and before Congress enacted the so-called Hyde Amendment in 1976.
“If you don’t exclude abortion,” Doerflinger said, “they will be required to use funds for abortion.”
Rich Daly writes from Washington, D.C.