Exploiting the Health Care Debate to Restrict Abortion

Before the congressional recess, moderate pro-life and pro-choice leaders agreed both sides would not seek provisions in healthcare reform to change the status quo on abortion. But the good will of the pro-choicers has not been met by pro-lifers.

This article originally appeared on Salon.com.

It was discouraging to hear Barack Obama, the man I supported for
president, announce so resolutely during his speech to Congress last
week that "under our [healthcare] plan no federal dollars will be used
to fund abortion." It was infuriating, however, that before the morning
cock could crow following the speech Jim Wallis of the antiabortion
organization Sojourners was claiming that the president’s remarks on
abortion were just what "a broad coalition of the faith community had
asked for — no federal funding for abortions."

I had been
prepared for Obama to close the door on a healthcare reform package
that would include funding abortions for women who rely on Medicaid for
health coverage. Low-income women already lost that right 30 years ago
when the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment. I believe a
principled compromise to maintain the status quo on abortion is
justified if it gets us better healthcare for millions of men and women
and security from the rapaciousness of the insurance industry. And no
pro-choice organization wants to bear the responsibility for healthcare
reform failing. And so, tacitly, pro-choice leaders have basically
accepted that the Hyde Amendment restrictions, as well as those that
deny federal workers, women in the military and women who get
healthcare on Indian reservations funding for abortion, would be
reflected in the healthcare package.

Unfortunately, the good will
shown by the pro-choice community has not been met with a good-faith
effort by Wallis and his friends. They now hope to use the president’s
promise as a way to press for further restrictions on abortion coverage
in the final healthcare legislation. As one moderate pro-life leader
told me, "It is going to be a long fall." All the talk about finding
common ground on abortion and the emergence of moderate pro-lifers is
floundering as Wallis and a few others prepare to push Congress and the
White House for further concessions. "[The president’s] commitment to
these principles," said Wallis, "means we can now work together to make
sure that they are consistently and diligently applied to any final
healthcare legislation." For Wallis, that means that "no person should
be forced to pay for someone else’s abortion and that public funds
cannot be used to pay for elective abortions."

Before the congressional recess, the moderate pro-lifers and
pro-choice leaders had pretty much agreed that both sides would not
seek provisions in healthcare reform that would change the status quo.
Rep Lois Capps, D-Calif., codified that agreement in an amendment to
the House bill. The Capps Amendment gave those opposed to abortion both
the guarantee they wanted that providers would have adequate conscience
protection against having to provide abortions and a prohibition on the
use of federal funds to pay for abortions in accordance with Hyde and
other current federal law. It made no change in the ability of private
insurance plans to decide whether or not to cover abortions, but
prohibited private plans from using federal subsidy dollars for
abortions. It provides that every state have at least one plan that
offers abortion coverage and one that does not, so that someone really
opposed to abortion can buy a plan that does not cover that service.

it now seems, is not enough for Wallis and company. They now want to be
sure that if an anti-choice person chooses a plan that does cover
abortion, the minuscule part of his premium that is allocated to
abortion coverage for all subscribers is not used for abortion. Stephen
Schenk, a moderate pro-life Catholic and a professor at Catholic
University, wants healthcare reform to extend the Hyde Amendment beyond
those groups that are already denied coverage to everyone. "If we are
stuck with the Capps Amendment," he says, "we are going to have
problems." Chris Korzen of Catholics United, a small Catholic advocacy
group that claims to be progressive, is worried that the public option
plan is going to offer abortion coverage. Although it will be funded
through premiums and there will be at least one private plan in the
"exchange" that those opposed to abortion can buy, Korzen is now poised
to oppose abortion coverage in the plan most designed to help
low-income people.

Enough already! This is not an attempt to
achieve common ground and use common sense. This is not that different
from the hard-line Catholic bishops and Family Research Council effort
to use public policy and healthcare reform to make abortion less
available than it already is and stigmatize every woman who even
contemplates it. And frankly, while Christian progressives like Korzen
and Wallis are spending all their time worrying about abortion, they’re
ignoring the major gap in all the plans — the exclusion of
undocumented workers living in the U.S. I always thought faith-inspired
social justice advocates were the ones I could count on to go out on a
limb for what is right, even if it gives the president they helped
elect a hard time. I guess I was wrong.

The irony of all this is that Wallis and Korzen don’t represent the
majority views of either mainline or progressive religion on abortion.
How long the mainline pro-choice faith community will allow Wallis and
a few small groups of progressive Catholics to use healthcare reform to
push for further restrictions on abortion remains to be seen. For
Wallis and others to assert that denying poor women the same access to
abortion as other women is moral and "what a broad coalition of the
faith community had asked for" is as dishonest as claiming, like Joe
"You Lie" Wilson, that the healthcare reform plans are going to provide
coverage to undocumented workers.

The broad coalition Wallis
refers to is, in fact, a specific group that is largely in favor of
federal funding for abortion. All the members of the group have done is
to put that support on the back burner in hopes of getting healthcare
reform passed. Organized under the umbrella name "40 Days for
Healthcare Reform," the coalition draws on about 25 denominations and
independent interfaith groups for various actions. Many of these groups
are on record as supporting public funding for abortion and have worked
to overturn the Hyde Amendment. They include the Religious Action
Center of Reform Judaism, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal
Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association, Evangelical Lutheran
Church in America, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA,
Faith in Public Life, and the Disciples of Christ. Some religious
groups that are not part of the 40 Days campaign are also on record as
supporting Medicaid funding for abortion. The National Coalition of
American Nuns has no position on abortion itself but has since 1976
supported providing federal funds for poor women’s abortions, asserting
that it would be discriminatory to coerce poor women into continuing
pregnancies by denying them the same right to decide as women who can
afford to pay for their own abortions.

So eager are Wallis and
his antiabortion friends to convince the media and policymakers that
progressive religion is antiabortion that they have stacked the deck
and excluded some pro-choice organizations from the effort to pass
healthcare reform. The Web site for the 40 Days campaign sets forward
criteria for membership that exclude religious groups working on
"single issues" — code for abortion. For example, the Religious
Coalition for Reproductive Choice was told that if it sent in a
sponsorship fee for one of the many actions, its check would be
returned. The group, founded by the Women’s Division of the United
Methodist Church, had sent a letter to members of Congress strongly
supportive of federal funding for poor women’s abortions in healthcare
reform. The letter is signed by religious leaders like the deans of the
Howard University and Episcopal divinity schools, as well as Nancy
Ratzen, president of the National Council of Jewish Women and a member
of Obama’s faith-based advisory council.

Wallis and the rest need
to be called to accountability for their decision to push an
antiabortion agenda in the midst of what was meant to be an effort to
reform healthcare. Otherwise, we will see the moral commitment most
mainline and progressive religious groups have to respecting the
consciences of poor and low-income women deeply compromised. Abortion
is not going to sink healthcare reform, but poor faith leadership can
sink the opportunity of poor women for a decent life.