Was Brown’s Win a Victory for Pro-Lifers in Health-Care Debate? Activists Wary

MOVING FORWARD? Will President Obama address the question of health-care reform during his first State of the Union address tonight, as he did during a speech to a joint session of Congress last September?
MOVING FORWARD? Will President Obama address the question of health-care reform during his first State of the Union address tonight, as he did during a speech to a joint session of Congress last September? (photo: REUTERS/Molly Riley)

WASHINGTON — In tonight’s State of the Union address, President Obama may map a way forward to save his health-care legislation, which seems to be on the verge of failing.

Weeks ago, pro-lifers feared that health-care reform would mandate taxpayer funding of abortion throughout the land.

But Republican Sen. Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special election gave abortion opponents an unexpected reprieve.

Pro-life advocates caution against complacency, however, and warn that even a “scaled-back” health-care overhaul will likely include abortion funding.

“Pro-life interests still are at great peril. The White House and the top congressional leadership are not giving up. They will try as hard as they can to get a pro-abortion health-care bill to the president’s desk,” predicted Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee.

Johnson acknowledged that the Democratic leadership must operate within a new political landscape shaped by Brown’s outright opposition to the health-care overhaul. Without Brown’s vote, Senate Democrats lack the filibuster-proof 60-vote majority needed to approve the bill.

Tom McClusky, vice president of government affairs for the Family Research Council, is equally cautious about declaring a pro-life victory.

“We welcome the Scott Brown election, but instead of fighting one big piece of legislation, we could be dealing with a series of small bills” that could mandate subsidies for abortion, he said.

Obama has not given up on health-care reform, and David Axelrod, his chief political adviser, had argued that universal health care remains “good politics.”

Capitol Hill has been abuzz with speculation over whether Senate Democrats would risk the political repercussions that would follow any legislative maneuvers designed to circumvent a Republican filibuster.
Democrats have weighed possible changes to the Senate bill that could win House support. If the Senate bill accommodates these changes, the final product could be approved through a budget procedure that requires just 51 votes. In this scenario, Republicans wouldn’t have the opportunity to use the filibuster.

However, key Democrats acknowledge that the adoption of a controversial legislative tactic would both antagonize Republicans and anger a broad swath of the electorate.

“Not only does Brown’s victory make it difficult to pass the Senate bill,” Johnson noted, “exit polls showed that the Massachusetts election was a referendum on ‘Obamacare.’  Even some Democrats wanted to block it.”

Opposing Subsidies for Abortion

A second, more remote possibility is that a scaled-back bill could draw bipartisan support, at least from moderate Republicans. GOP senators like Susan Collins of Maine say they welcome common action on coverage for patients with “pre-existing conditions,” for example.

But even a modest bill could secure federal subsidies for abortion.

“Any recasting of health-care reform could include anti-life provisions,” warned William Saunders, senior vice president and senior counsel for Americans United for Life. “A new effort could peel off the few Republicans required to gain passage of a bill.”

Saunders offered no indication that this scenario was likely. But he suggested that the unexpected outcome of the Massachusetts special election underscored the need for caution in a volatile political environment.

While Democratic Party leaders decide on their next move, abortion opponents on Capitol Hill and throughout the nation are using the time to plot their own strategy.

Johnson has joined with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Richard Doerflinger to educate House supporters of the Stupak amendment on the specifics of the Senate plan. Abortion-rights supporters have described the Senate’s language as “abortion-neutral,” but Johnson points out that the Senate bill, if enacted, “would be the biggest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade.”

The majority of U.S. voters have consistently opposed the use of federal funds for abortion, though some individual states do provide subsidies. Legal scholars like Hadley Arkes, professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College, argue that pro-life activists should step up their defense of the commonsense principles incorporated in the Hyde Amendment .

“Scott Brown was not a pro-life candidate, but he said he opposed federal subsidies for abortion. If true, we should be building on this position,” suggested Arkes, the primary architect of the so-called “incremental strategy” to overturn Roe by passing legislation such as the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban and the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act.

“The right to privacy has been used to justify legal abortion. But if this really is a matter of privacy — so private that only the woman and her doctor have any say —  then why should public moneys be involved?” Arkes asked.

Brown’s victory underscored voter worries about the rapid expansion of the federal government and deficit spending in the wake of the economic crisis. Now, pro-life activists like Brian Burch, president of CatholicVoteAction.org, believe the time is ripe to make the connection with moral teachings that uphold the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Texas, and chairman of the bishops conference’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, recently outlined the U.S. bishops’  moral concerns regarding health-care reform —  “protection of life and conscience, affordable access to health care, and fairness to immigrants.”

Burch contends that the conference’s legislative agenda has given short shrift to traditional elements of Catholic social justice, such as the principle of subsidiarity, though a handful of bishops have written statements arguing for the principle of subsidiarity, notably Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., and Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Mo., in a joint pastoral statement Aug. 22, 2009.
For now, though, most pro-life advocates appear thoroughly occupied with one critical goal: keeping abortion out of health-care reform.

Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.