WASHINGTON — Pro-lifers have never been happy with the way abortion funding was handled by “Obamacare.” But they have reason to be happier, after Republicans were able to prevent any additional funds for the health care law from going to pay for abortions in the omnibus spending bill that was signed into law late last month.
In legislative terms, the debate was over whether the Hyde Amendment — the term for the law that bars federal funding of abortions — would apply to potentially billions in funding meant to “stabilize” Obamacare.
“We were successful,” said Greg Schleppenbach, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). “It would have been a disaster if this new stabilization funding was included in the omnibus without Hyde protections.”
For nearly four decades, the Hyde Amendment has been the norm at the federal level. The measure was proposed by longtime GOP congressman Henry Hyde in 1976, and, according to a 2016 study, it has been responsible for saving the lives of more than 2 million unborn babies. Its constitutionality was upheld in a 1980 Supreme Court ruling, and it has been applied to federal health care funding since then.
“The Democrats were really trying to change established principle,” said David O’Steen, the executive director of the National Right to Life Committee. He said the Democrats had insisted that the stabilization funds be allowed to pay for abortions.
Republicans refused to back down, countering that the Hyde Amendment must remain in effect. In early March, AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan, declared that the Hyde Amendment was “not negotiable for House Republicans,” according to a report in The Hill.
As a result, a bipartisan deal to shore up the finances of Obamacare fell through and was left out of the $1.3-trillion omnibus spending bill President Donald Trump signed March 23. The deal had been spearheaded by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Patty Murphy, D-Wash.
Maureen Ferguson, a senior policy adviser at The Catholic Association, which advocates for Church issues in the public square, said the blame for the collapse of the deal lies squarely at the feet of pro-abortion Democrats.
“They prioritized abortion funding over lowering premiums for working people,” Ferguson told the Register. “The Democrats decided they wanted no Obamacare stabilization funds unless they could include abortion funding, and that is radically out of step with the American people.”
From the beginning, Obamacare, formally known as the Affordable Care Act (ACA), has weakened Hyde restrictions. In place of an outright ban on federal funding of abortions via Obamacare — an objective strongly endorsed by the U.S. bishops — the final version of the law merely allowed states to prevent Obamacare funding from going to plans that cover abortions in the state marketplaces that were set up.
On the federal level, President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2016 stipulating that federal funds could go to plans that pay for abortions, but the actual cost of abortions would have to come from a separate surcharge.
Pro-lifers have consistently condemned the executive order as inadequate.
“It was presented as though it was solving the abortion-funding problem of the ACA, and it can’t do that. An executive order cannot make law. So it really was … a bit of a sham,” Schleppenbach said. O’Steen calls it “essentially a bookkeeping scheme.”
In one sense, then, the failure to broker a deal on Obamacare funding also was a lost opportunity to beef up the law with Hyde Amendment restrictions on abortion, according to O’Steen.
The deadlock over Obamacare funding also represents an added conundrum for the Church in the U.S. The U.S. bishops’ conference has long supported the idea of Obamacare, with the exception of the contraceptive mandate and the association of any funding with abortion.
An official at the bishops’ Office of Domestic Social Development could not be reached in time for publication, but that office has in the past specifically backed stabilization funding for Obamacare.
Partisan Divide Deepens
Schleppenbach, whose office doesn’t deal with broader issues of Obamacare, said the latest conflict reveals a shift in attitudes by pro-abortion groups, indicating the challenges pro-life advocates will face in the future.
“There is no question that there is increased hostility by the abortion industry to going after Hyde. They’re shifting their whole mantra away from ‘choice’ to ‘abortion is health care,’ and so it should be paid for. They are extreme in that sense,” Schleppenbach said.
The days of bipartisan support for the Hyde Amendment are being challenged by the abortion industry, according to Schleppenbach.
Such increasing hostility, aligning closely with the position of Planned Parenthood and other abortion lobby groups, is reflected in the changing demographics of the Democratic Party.
When Obamacare passed in 2010, there were some 60 to 70 pro-life Democrats in the House. Nearly a decade later, that number has dwindled to two, according to pro-life advocates. The Democratic Party platform calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment. That means that if Democrats take back the House, the funding rule would be threatened, according to Schleppenbach.
“A Democratic-majority House would be a pro-abortion House,” added O’Steen, who noted that there are also no real pro-life Democratic senators.
The outcome of the midterm elections in November will show whether the GOP prevails in its position to protect the Hyde Amendment. Until then, it’s unlikely that there will be any more attempts to fix the ACA, according to Schleppenbach.
He said it’s unfortunate that the fate of the Hyde Amendment has become such a partisan issue.
“That’s truly a shame. I mean it really is, because the abortion issue is not and should never be a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s a basic civil-rights issue, and it should never be relegated to a Republican or a Democrat issue. Everybody, regardless of one’s party, should be concerned about — and defending — the civil rights of every human being.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.