During the just completed health-care reform discussion with religious representatives on BlogTalkRadio, a direct and clear question was asked about whether the president’s reform package would mandate taxpayer funding of abortion.

Unfortunately an equally clear response wasn’t forthcoming, even though President Barack Obama declared later in the discussion that it’s “not true” that his plan involves funding of abortion.

Instead, in response to the direct question posed about abortion funding, Melody Barnes, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, provided what appeared to be a deliberately misleading response.

The question about abortion funding — one of four fielded by Barnes during the 40-minute health-care reform discussion — was posed by a Catholic parish nurse in Pennsylvania. The parish nurse said, “What I’m hearing from many Catholics is that they want to support health insurance reform because they believe all of God’s children should be able to get the care they need, but they are worried reform will change our current policies that prevent government funding of abortion and keep federal conscience protections in place. Can you assure us that we can support health reform without sacrificing our religious and moral values?”

With respect to abortion funding, Barnes replied, “You know, I’ve heard lots and lots of rumors about what the bills do or don’t do. I really want to be clear about this. The president has said that it’s long-standing policy that federal funds won’t be used for abortion coverage. Health reform, and our health reform efforts, are not intended to force Americans to purchase health insurance that includes coverage they don’t want, and they should be able to purchase coverage that reflects their values and basic needs. And it’s not intended to reduce insurance coverage that Americans already have. “

The difficulty with Barnes’s response is that it does not address the substance of the specific concern raised by the U.S. bishops in recent public statements warning that the health-care reform bills currently before Congress leave the door open for taxpayer funding for those Americans who opt for public insurance plans that include abortion services.

As Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, stated in an Aug. 11 letter to members of the House of Representatives:

The legislation delegates to the secretary of Health and Human Services the power to make unlimited abortion a mandated benefit in the “public health insurance plan” the government will manage nationwide. This would be a radical change: Federal law has long excluded most abortions from federal employees’ health benefits packages, and no federal health program mandates coverage of elective abortions.

Additionally, Cardinal Rigali warned in his letter,

Because some federal funds are authorized and appropriated by this legislation without passing through the Labor/HHS appropriations bill, they are not covered by the Hyde Amendment and other federal provisions that have long prevented federal funding of abortion and of health benefits packages that include abortion. The committee rejected an amendment to extend this long-standing policy to the use of federal subsidies for health -are premiums under this act. Instead the committee created a legal fiction, a paper separation between federal funding and abortion: Federal funds will subsidize the public plan, as well as private health plans that include abortion on demand; but anyone who purchases these plans is required to pay a premium out of his or her own pocket (specified in the act to be at least $1.00 a month) to cover all abortions beyond those eligible for federal funds under the current Hyde Amendment. Thus some will claim that federal taxpayer funds do not support abortion under the act.

But this is an illusion. Funds paid into these plans are fungible, and federal taxpayer funds will subsidize the operating budget and provider networks that expand access to abortions. Furthermore, those constrained by economic necessity or other factors to purchase the “public plan” will be forced by the federal government to pay directly and specifically for abortion coverage. This is the opposite of the policy in every other federal health program. Government will force low-income Americans to subsidize abortions for others (and abortion coverage for themselves) even if they find abortion morally abhorrent.

Remember, Barnes said Americans “should be able to purchase coverage that reflects their values and basic needs.” Presumably, for those whose “basic values” include the right to abortion, this means they should be able to purchase abortion coverage.

And Barnes’ promise that health reform is “not intended to force Americans to purchase health insurance that includes coverage they don’t want,” provides no assurance that taxpayers won’t be providing funding to those who do want to acquire government health insurance that includes abortion services by the mechanisms Cardinal Rigali described in his letter to members of the House.

Speaking at the conclusion of the carefully scripted BlogTalkRadio session, Obama cited the claim of funding of abortion as one example of the false claims that are being circulated by critics of his health-care reform initiative.

“You’ve heard that this is all going to mean government funding of abortion,” Obama said. “Not true.”

Perhaps Obama was specifically ruling out any funding of abortion with his terse one-sentence remark dismissing the issue, but his domestic policy advisor’s more extensive comments immediately beforehand suggest otherwise.

There’s a way for Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress to put the matter to rest, of course. That could be done by including wording similar to the Hyde Amendment in the health-care reform bill, specifically prohibiting any federal funding of abortion services or of health benefit packages that include coverage of abortion.