WASHINGTON — One question never surfaced at President Obama’s health-care press conference. Would the health-care reform bill mandate abortions? Would it end the longtime ban against the use of federal funds to subsidize abortions?
Seeking to maintain political traction on his health-care reform initiative, Obama organized a primetime press conference July 22 to defend his signature domestic policy.
The president sought to tamp down concerns about rationing health care and increasing taxes to fund new provisions.
The silence on abortion wasn’t due to any lack of controversy.
During that same week, pro-life congressmen spoke out publicly against efforts to use health-care reform to mandate abortions and subsidize the procedure.
Meanwhile, national pro-life leaders organized a “Stop the Abortion Mandate” webcast that drew more than 36,000 participants seeking to organize protests throughout the country.
“This is the big one: Not since Roe v. Wade have unborn children been more at risk,” contended Congressman Chris Smith, R-N.J., a longtime pro-life leader who has repeatedly raised the issue on the House floor and addressed the webcast audience.
Smith and his allies on Capitol Hill are navigating an intense, often chaotic legislative process that may yield an opportunity for victory or result in political disaster, reversing decades of incremental efforts to restrict abortions.
Pro-lifers face an uphill battle. Not only do they constitute a minority in both the House and the Senate; they must look for opportunities to make strategic alliances without undercutting their commitment to the unborn.
Back home in their districts, they hope to persuade their constituents to oppose any reforms that may appear benign, but could result in a radical expansion of abortion, courtesy of the federal government and the nation’s taxpayers.
The effort to educate U.S. voters is more complex than it might seem. For starters, the proposed legislation doesn’t include language on abortion, and the bill’s supporters thus contend that pro-life fears are exaggerated.
But veteran lawmakers like Smith argue that legal precedent justifies their position that any bill that doesn’t explicitly exclude abortion will be interpreted as a mandate to expand access to the procedure.
‘Blue Dog’ Allies?
Meanwhile, Obama has sought to deflect public debate on sensitive health-care issues by announcing his plan to appoint a medical advisory board that would set national policy on private coverage. The White House has described the plan as a way to depoliticize hot-button issues and leave their resolution “to medical experts in the field.”
The president also has encountered significant push back. In the wake of new polls signaling public concern regarding the plan’s impact on the economy, the Senate decided to delay a vote until after its August recess. House leaders, dealing with increased resistance from fiscally conservative “Blue Dog Democrats,” may follow suit.
The Blue Dogs could prove to be handy allies for embattled pro-life congressmen, increasing the possibility that the health-care reform cannot be enacted without a liberal retreat.
Anti-abortion amendments have been defeated in key House committees that signed off on the bill. Still, pro-lifers were heartened that in a recent rule vote, dealing with federal funding of abortions in the District of Columbia, 39 Democrats opposed the provision, though it ultimately became law.
Those 39 votes have inspired hope that House leaders will be forced to address bipartisan concerns on social and economic issues. But given the size and complexity of the House bills — some more than 600 pages long — activists must scrutinize the language of “compromise” efforts that might actually advance abortion rights.
“They are trying to cobble together a phony compromise,” warned Smith. “I have been in the pro-life movement for 37 years. Time and again, I’ve seen how duplicitous the language can be.”
Smith joined a bipartisan group of House members, led by Congressman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., to demand that any health-care bill include language explicitly excluding an abortion mandate and funding of abortions.
Stupak contends that the House bill includes “a hidden abortion mandate.” He has met with the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, Henry Waxman, D-Calif., to find acceptable compromise language. Disputes between liberal and Blue Dog Democrats in Waxman’s committee have kept the bill off the floor, providing valuable time for pro-life members to press their agenda and gain allies.
The Place of Contraceptives
A separate group of Democrats, led by Congressman Tim Ryan, has met with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to propose that the bill ban federal subsidies for abortion services but allow private insurers to adopt their own policy on abortion coverage.
“It’s clear we don’t want federal funding for abortions: That’s the most immediate need. The bill is silent on that … and we think it needs to be explicit: There will be no federal funding for abortion,” said Ryan.
Some news stories have labeled Ryan a “pro-life” Democrat, a characterization Smith rejects. The dispute underscores the confusing and complex process of evaluating proposals that might help or hinder pro-life legislative goals. Notably, Ryan was removed from the Democrats for Life advisory board. He insists that his departure from Democrats for Life arose from a difference of opinion on promoting contraceptive services as a means for reducing abortion.
“You cannot have a serious discussion on abortion reduction if you don’t provide contraception,” said Ryan. “I want contraceptives; the Democrats for Life don’t.”
But Smith and Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life, contend that they have more serious disagreements with Ryan and his proposals. Smith argues that Ryan’s proposed Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act — which would expand family-planning services — will be a financial windfall for Planned Parenthood, a major provider of abortion services.
Ryan counters that it’s possible to provide funds for contraceptive services without subsidizing abortions. “There is a firewall between public money that Planned Parenthood gets through Title X and its provision of abortion services,” Ryan said.
Like the rest of the pro-life movement, the U.S. bishops have struggled to respond to the conflicting political signals and stay ahead of the curve on health-care reform.
While the bishops have long sought to expand health care to the uninsured, Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement that underscored the bishops’ concerns about the implications of an abortion mandate.
“Genuine health-care reform that protects the life and dignity of all is a moral imperative and a vital national obligation,” stated Bishop Murphy, who repudiated attempts to “compel us or others to pay for the destruction of human life, whether through government funding or mandatory coverage of abortion.”
The bishops’ Pro-life Secretariat has issued a series of action plans designed to spur grassroots resistance to an abortion mandate and to any threats against the moral integrity of Catholic health institutions and providers.
But the U.S. bishops’ Richard Doerflinger reported that his office has delayed the release of any further action alerts until new proposals are carefully vetted.“We don’t know what amendment we will be able to support,” acknowledged Doerflinger, who commended the National Right to Life Committee for its political leadership and astute analysis of proposed legislation.
He expects that dioceses throughout the country will use the August recess to bombard congressional district offices with their concerns.
Abortion may not have surfaced as an issue during Obama’s press conference on health-care reform, but Doerflinger believes that anti-abortion advocates can build on the work of pro-life congressional leaders. “Right now, these bills are a moving target,” he said. “But we will stay on top of it and continue to educate the public.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes
from Chevy Chase, Maryland.